While You Were Distracted by Keystone XL

A Long-Awaited Decision

Earlier this month, after a debate that spanned nearly the entire duration of his presidency, President Obama finally rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. He had been heavily criticized on this issue from many angles, including by me, for his long-running failure to make a decision on this issue. For the record, my position on the pipeline wasn’t that it should be built. Nor that it shouldn’t. But rather that it was a distraction that garnered far more attention than it deserved, while more important issues desperately warranted attention.

Today, in the last Keystone XL article that I plan to write, I want to review the controversy, explain why I feel it took on a symbolic meaning far beyond what it deserved, and describe some of the other things that were taking place while an environmental movement mobilized to stop the pipeline. In a nutshell, I am going to strip the symbolism and wishful thinking and address things we actually know to be true.

Keystone XL Review

First, a quick review for that rare person who has no idea what this Keystone XL controversy is all about. The Keystone Pipeline is owned by TransCanada (TSX, NYSE: TRP). Phase 1 of the pipeline began operating in 2010, and had the capacity to move 590,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta to hubs and refineries in the US. In 2011, Phase 2 of Keystone connected Steele City, Nebraska to the major oil hub in Cushing, Oklahoma. Phase 3 connected the Cushing hub to Gulf Coast refineries with a capacity of 700,000 bpd and began operating in January 2014.

The Phase 4 expansion of the Keystone Pipeline is the one we came to know as the Keystone XL (“XL” stands for export limited.) Like Phase 1, this expansion would add pipeline from Alberta and cross the US-Canadian border. The 875 miles of pipeline would have a capacity of up to 830,000 bpd, and terminate in Steele City, Nebraska. Because the proposed route crossed the international border, the U.S. State Department was required to determine that the project was in the national interest in order to grant a permit (as the agency did with Phase 1).

The Keystone XL was first proposed in 2008. In 2010, the State Department issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The State Department determined that the project was unlikely to have a significant impact on oil sands development or global greenhouse gas emissions, and they estimated that six people per year would be killed on average if the oil was instead transported by rail. In a 2010 interview, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to a question about the project with “We’ve not yet signed off on it, but we are inclined to do so and we are for several reasons.” (She was recently forced to pivot away from supporting the project in response to the surging presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

An Environmental Movement Forms

Opposition to the Keystone XL turned into an environmental movement. The pipeline project became the most controversial one in the U.S. since the Trans-Alaska pipeline of the mid-1970s. Opponents of the Keystone XL believed that stopping the pipeline would slow the rate of oil sands development, and thus limit greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Proponents argued that it would strengthen our relationship with Canada at the expense of more hostile oil suppliers like Venezuela, improving U.S. energy security and creating jobs in the process.

Books could be written on the nuances of each side, but I don’t intend to rehash those debates here. If you are interested, I have linked to some of my previous articles at the end. The truth is that it really didn’t have much significance either way. For environmentalists, this issue became larger than life. Fund-raising campaigns were launched to stop the pipeline. Protests were organized in front of the White House. Celebrities got themselves arrested.

In the aftermath of the president’s rejection of the pipeline, environmentalists will rightly claim victory. But let’s look at the big picture here.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Continue to Rise

The Obama Administration could have ruled on the pipeline in 2010. It would have meant overruling the State Department’s recommendation at that time, so it would have required political courage. But, the President faced reelection. So instead of making a politically courageous decision, he kept coming up with excuses for why he couldn’t yet decide the issue. So let’s review what has happened since 2010, when the President could have first ruled on the 875-mile, 830,000 bpd pipeline:

  • 12,000 miles of oil transmission pipelines were built in the U.S. (Source).
  • The liquid petroleum pipeline network in the U.S. grew to beyond 190,000 miles. (Source).
  • Crude oil imports from Canada increased by 1.5 million bpd. (Source).
  • Canadian oil sands production rose by 700,000 bpd to reach 2.3 million bpd. (Source).
  • Crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. increased by a factor of 30 to reach 1 million bpd. (Source).
  • A train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. (Source).
  • While campaigning for reelection in 2012, President Obama announced his strong support for the 700,000 bpd southern leg of the Keystone pipeline (Source).
  • Global demand for oil increased by 4.2 million bpd. (Source).
  • Global coal consumption increased annually by 270 million tons of oil equivalent (the equivalent of 5 million bpd of oil), with demand in Asia Pacific up by 15%. (Source).
  • Annual emissions of carbon dioxide rose by more than 2 billion metric tons to an all-time record of 35.5 billion metric tons per year. (Source).

In Defense of the Protesters 

If you were an opponent of the pipeline, you may be wondering what my point is other than to argue about the futility of your efforts at actually having the end result you envisioned. But that’s not it. David Roberts at Vox recently wrote a very good and thoughtful column that sought to explain and justify the activism — while acknowledging the arguments of the skeptics. When you distill his argument down, it is that social change is hard to predict, and that these protests don’t really seem futile or pointless. This movement could lead to something bigger. He invoked, as others have done, the early protests of the civil rights movement and the tremendous positive changes that resulted.

But there is an implicit assumption built into these sorts of argument. We have the benefit of decades of hindsight here, and by linking the Keystone XL protests to the civil rights movement the implication is “Great things could happen from these protests without really much downside risk.” That gets right to the heart of my issue over the Keystone XL protests, and is an issue that Keystone XL protesters fail to acknowledge. Is it possible that these efforts are actually counterproductive? The answer to that in my opinion is “Absolutely.”

The Counterproductive Possibility

There are many different ways these protests could prove to be counterproductive. Perhaps there were situations within the civil rights movement that were counterproductive, and those could turn out to be the real historical analogies to Keystone XL. There are examples today where good intentions in the name of civil rights turn out to have negative unintended consequences. (See the backlash caused by a University of North Texas journalism dean trying to create a racial incident over a routine police contact. This is the sort of issue that can pull attention away from real issues of racial injustice).

What if cutting off pipeline access doesn’t really work the way the protesters think it does, and oil ends up getting to market by rail because the demand is still there? That would be an example where efforts could actually make matters worse. Carbon emissions could actually end up being higher because rail transport is more energy intensive, and more people could be killed in rail accidents.

What if people were so singularly focused on this issue that they developed a totally unrealistic view of the importance of this project relative to much greater threats? I once likened this to protecting a drowning man from sunburn. Or focusing triage efforts on a hangnail in a patient with a serious head wound. Those are the sorts of distractions that could prove to be ultimately extremely counterproductive. I can spin all kinds of stories about the importance of mobilizing and motivating people to justify protecting a drowning man from sunburn, but I do a disservice if I fail to acknowledge the danger of misallocating resources when time is of the essence.

That argument inevitably leads to “Well, what is your solution?” I do in fact spend a lot of time writing about, advocating for, and working on various solutions. Most of my effort is focused on reducing the demand side. The war on drugs shows what happens when we try to cut off supplies from a product that is still in demand. That tactic doesn’t work very well, but that’s a topic for another article. My real bottom line concern is that when movements are built around inconsequential issues (a loaded phrase to be sure), resources are diverted and distracted away from more critical issues. Time is a precious resource that we can’t afford to fritter away in the hope that over a period of years the protests on the inconsequential issue lead to action on a consequential issue.


Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders recently tweeted “I have always opposed Keystone XL. It isn’t a distraction — it’s a fundamental litmus test of your commitment to battle climate change.” I disagree. The litmus test needs to be whether you really understand the reasons that global carbon dioxide emissions continue to climb. If you don’t understand the problem, or don’t understand the cause, you may focus your efforts on futile solutions. The fact that we are building pipelines is inconsequential relative to global coal emissions, for example. But by focusing so much attention on Keystone XL there is a risk of losing sight of this. The Keystone XL battle may have been won, but by positioning this the way they have, protesters may have a much harder time motivating people for much more important battles ahead. When you hype the significance of Keystone XL to the moon, it becomes hard then to follow up with “But this next issue is REALLY important.”

Unless pipeline opponents can leverage this victory into getting China to rapidly slash coal consumption — and Beijing just admitted China has been consuming even more than previously thought — the victory, like the controversy around the pipeline itself, will be purely symbolic.

My Previous Keystone XL Articles

Washington Post: President Obama is Lying About the Keystone Pipeline
Keystone XL’s Emissions Versus Coal-Fired Power
Protecting a Drowning Man from Sunburn
The Increasing Irrelevance of the Keystone XL Debate
Protesting Keystone XL While Rome Burns
Why Environmentalists are Wrong on Keystone XL
How I Would Decide the Keystone XL Pipeline Issue
Take a Stand, Mr. President


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