Keystone XL Pipeline: Does Postponement Mean Victory?

Yesterday(November 10, 2011)  the White House announced that the proposal to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, meant to bring oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to refineries on the coast of Texas, would be sent back to the State Department for further review. This decision is being hailed as a victory by Tar Sands Action, the coalition organized to stop the pipeline. But is it? I’m not so sure.

Environmentalists opposed the pipeline because:

  1. The $7 billion project would lock us into continued dependence on fossil fuels for its lifetime.
  2. Extraction of oil from the tar sands, by hydrofracking and similarly destructive techniques, destroys the area where they are – see these photos – and threaten the Peace-Athabasca Delta, nesting ground for millions of waterfowl, which is immediately downstream.
  3. The proposed pipeline route through Nebraska threatened to contaminate both the Sand Hills region and the underlying Ogalalla Aquifer, principal water source for much of the Great Plains.
  4. The review process in the State Department was corrupt. The Cardno consulting firm, which the State Department had hired to review the proposal, lists the firm that would build the pipeline, TransCanada, as one of its major customers.

Tar Sands Action has conducted an exemplary campaign against the proposal, including massive civil disobedience in front of the White House last summer and the November 6 action when 12,000 people surrounded the White House three-deep, as shown in this CBS video (which drastically lowballs the number of demonstrators, though). One theme of the campaign has been that the protesters worked hard for Barack Obama in 2008, and would like to do so again, but won’t be able to unless he shows that he is on the side of the environment by stopping the pipeline project.

Then came yesterday’s announcement. Specifically, it was said that the proposal would be reviewed to see if a better route could be found; in other words, the administration would still like to proceed with the pipeline, but understand that it would pose a high level of environmental risk to Nebraska. (The Republican governor of Nebraska has been opposing it for that reason.) Coincidentally, the decision to conduct the review means that no decision on the pipeline will be made until early 2013, well after the presidential election.

This seems to me like a transparent ploy to dodge the issue, hoping that the environmental activists will get back in line behind the Obama campaign. An appropriate reaction might be to keep up the protest – to say “we’re beginning to win, let’s demand a total victory: a veto of the pipeline!” But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, protest leaders like Naomi Klein (in this talk broadcast on Democracy Now) and Bill McKibben (in the statement linked from the first paragraph above)  have declared victory, arguing that delay will kill the pipeline.

I hope they are right. I have great respect for each of them; each has made tremendous contributions to the struggle against the pipeline and the broader struggle against corporate greed and climate change. But this time I think they’ve got it wrong. Once the pressure of the election is off, Obama – or worse yet, his Republican successor – is going to go ahead with the pipeline. Tar Sands Action has 2,500 people pledged to civil disobedience if that happens; but how much more effective it would be if they acted now, before the election, rather than in 2013.