Counterpoint: The (Principled) Case for Taking a Stand Against the Keystone XL

Over the past few months, the question of whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL) has become as divisive as the line its blueprints draw through the heartland of America. One side claims that the pipeline will be ‘game over for the climate,’ while the other asserts it will create jobs and give a much-needed boost to the American economy. My writing would have you believe that I am an unabashed opponent of the project. After all, I was arrested in opposition. In reality, though, I do not side entirely with either point of view.

Perhaps that is why I found myself reading Bryan Davies’ piece in a state of cold fury. My hope is that Davies intended his work to be over-the-top and inflammatory but, regardless, some of his statements are purely wrong.

Though I agree that the pipeline itself would not destroy the climate, I also maintain that constructing the KXL would be a very bad idea. Studies, including one out of Cornell, have shown that the pipeline would have a negligible effect on jobs or the economy. In fact, other research suggests that the pipeline could raise gas prices in the Midwest. The extraction of the tar sands pollutes Canadian waters, a spill could devastate Nebraskan farms, and air pollution from oil refineries will only continue to increase asthma rates in Texas.

Davies writes that the pipeline is,

“an easy mark for the professional pugilists masquerading as the media relations tyros coordinating the strident Keystone opposition.”

Well. I have yet to meet any of those so-called professional pugilists he so charmingly refers to. The strident KXL opposition? That’s coming from people like the Canadian First Nations, who are quite literally being poisoned. Honey, those ‘tyros’ who are coordinating the opposition are people who have dedicated their lives towards making sure that children don’t grow up choking on the air in their hometowns thick with pollution from fossil fuels.

Davies also writes,

“Until all fossil fuels are abandoned, and our society is committed to renewables for ever more, the differences in degree between ‘dirty’ Alberta crude and purportedly purer extractions elsewhere are lost on me.”

Keystone Pipeline Activists ArrestedWell, maybe he isn’t looking closely enough. The bitumen in Alberta is labeled ‘dirty’ for several reasons. First, because it is thicker and more corrosive than regular crude and therefore more likely to eat through a pipeline. Second, the extraction process partially involves clear-cutting vast strips of land, leaving a moonscape behind. Extracting conventional crude leaves fewer scars behind. Finally, the tar sands are labeled ‘dirty’ for the same reasons all oil is – it’s a resource (metaphorically) awash in blood.

The all-or-nothing argument Davies puts forth doesn’t hold water when one looks at the realities of the world. Change is incremental. A society as dependent on fossil fuels as ours can’t possibly switch to one hundred percent renewables overnight. Immediately abandoning fossil fuels might be a guaranteed ‘save’ for the planet, but it would devastate the world economy. But because it’s clear change is necessary, we have to start somewhere.

Ultimately, what Davies and so many of the others writing about the pipeline ignore is that the KXL is a symbol representing our nation’s options when it comes to the climate threat. The choice is as clear as the dichotomy set up in the media, but it’s not a decision between environment or economy as is so often posed. Rather, the choice is between facing the dangers of a warming world or continuing to behave like ostriches, burying our heads in the sand. We can either end our addiction to fossil fuels, or we can die with it.

Climate change poses an enormous threat to society as we know it. We’ve seen the impacts of a warming world threaten our lives and livelihoods in this country as once-in-a-lifetime weather events continue to occur every few years. We’re loading the dice against ourselves, and each Hurricane Sandy is a reminder of the life-or-death risks of this game. Plus, climate change threatens US citizens at home as well as abroad by reducing national security. High ranking US military officials have gone on public record stating the need for climate action. Addressing climate change wouldn’t reduce jobs, as is so often claimed, and neither would it hurt the economy. In fact, the longer climate action is delayed, the more billions of dollars the world stands to lose from the costs of events like Sandy.

The State Department’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) comes to the, “conclusion that the environmental and climate change impacts [of the project] are manageable.” That’s debatable from an environmental standpoint, but what is more important is not whether or not to build one more pipeline but whether or not to build this pipeline. If the pipeline had not become the symbol it is today, President Obama’s choice would be much simpler and much closer to the decision the SEIS evaluates. Now, the President’s choice is one about the future of this country. To approve the KXL would be, symbolically, to stand back and let runaway climate change take its course. It would be a decision of devastating economic and human health consequences.

As President, Mr. Obama should recognize that his every action is symbolic and disregard the SEIS. He ought to deny the permits for the KXL and make a statement: the U.S. is ready to take bold action on climate. His decision will be morally and environmentally right, but it will also take steps to safeguard our economic future.