Environmental activists have been fighting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline since it was first introduced in 2008. This extension to the current Keystone oil pipeline in Canada was met with strong resistance from both activists and legislators who argued that the impact of the pipeline was not well understood. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency specifically indicated that existing data collected by the State Department was too narrow and did not adequately consider “oil spill response plans, safety issues and greenhouse gas concerns.” Three weeks ago, the State Department issued a new report summarizing its recent study of the potential environmental impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline. The report stated the pipeline would not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. It went on to say that oil sands extraction would continue at an accelerating rate with or without Keystone, pointing out that the crude oil could be moved by rail failing the pipeline’s construction.
This report may seem like a death knell for the movement against Keystone, but it’s not quite the whole story. The majority of the report lays out a scenario where oil prices remain high and thus the tar sands in Alberta would be developed for their oil regardless of the creation of Keystone XL. However, if oil prices — and by extension demand for oil — are low, then the creation of Keystone XL would artificially accelerate the destruction of this land. Alternatively, transporting oil by rail is more sensitive to market fluctuations and would actually slow projected development of this area. The report does not comment on whether oil prices are likely to be high or low, but the rigidity of oil production necessary to sustain a pipeline should be sufficient reason to argue against Keystone XL. The report also states definitively that the projected 3,900 jobs created by the construction of the pipeline would only be temporary. Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline often cite job creation as one of the project’s most appealing features, but after two years only 35 jobs would remain. The report from the State Department has been described as a positive recommendation for the Keystone XL project, but in reality it lays out a more balanced assessment of the future of the pipeline.
By itself, the State Department report holds little weight; it’s primarily an analysis of the environmental and economic impacts that the Keystone XL pipeline may have. This report was delivered to Secretary of State John Kerry three weeks ago, giving him 90 days to make a recommendation on the future of Keystone XL to President Barack Obama. The Secretary of State has not made his opinion on the project public in the past, but he has implied that he is willing to balance environmental concerns with corporate interests. However, he has also previously made clear that he hopes to achieve meaningful action on climate change during his time in office. Obama has similarly indicated a desire to build a strong climate legacy in his second term but has taken a cautious approach to the Keystone XL issue. Kerry’s concern for the environment should make his decision clear: a definitive recommendation against the creation of Keystone XL. This will both solidify his position as an advocate for environmental issues and bolster the environmental movement.
Both Kerry and Obama have crucial decisions to make that will dictate the future of both Keystone XL and the environmental movement in the United States. In the fight against climate change there are few tangible battles. Far too often, environmental activists must rally against large-scale crises that cannot be resolved with one man’s decision. With the Keystone XL pipeline, we have the chance to make a real difference and let our voices be heard. We cannot keep coal-fueled power plants from polluting, nor can we reverse climate change. Frankly, the majority of environmental issues are too big to tackle head-on. We need to pick our battles wisely and seize the opportunities we have. Preventing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is one such opportunity. Kerry must advise Obama against the pipeline and the president must prevent the pipeline’s construction. This is a battle we must win.
Students on campus will gather to hear state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) speak against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline at 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 17, in the Central Student Government Chambers in the Union. In addition to learning more about this issue, we will also be signing petitions to send to our representatives. Come add your voice to this important cause!
Sonja Karnovsky is an LSA senior and Trevor Dolan is an LSA sophomore.