Keystone Pipeline in Limbo, and that’s a Good Thing


Neil Young during recent visit to Canada, by Mark Blinch
Neil Young during recent visit to Canada, by Mark Blinch

U.S. President Obama is again signalling he’s in no rush to approve the Keystone Pipeline and that offers a sliver of hope for Canada. Canada needs all the help it can get to put the brakes on the pell-mell development of the Alberta tar sands.

(The story is cross posted with DeSmog Canada, which you can read here.)

Ahead of Super Bowl weekend the U.S. State department released the final environmental assessment of the pipeline project and mainstream media was quick to declare the report gave Obama the cover he needed to finally approve it.

Kate Shepherd at the Huffington Post wrote that the assessment “increases the likelihood” the pipeline, a great superhighway to deliver Alberta bitumen to thirsty U.S. Gulf coast refineries, would finally get the green light.

The report in fact stated, “approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.”

That statement is so easily refutable. Indeed, there is much in this massive report that is, at best, suspect.  Look at this line on the potential damage from a large oil spill: “The potential impacts from a large spill would be similar to the impacts from the medium-sized spill, but on a much larger scale.” So it’s sort of like a big snowstorm is like a small snowstorm, except there is more snow. Wow, thanks for the insight.

It’s this kind of filler that should give policy makers in Washington pause, including on the main point that Keystone won’t increase the rate of extraction of tar sands crude.

The report in its foggy style asserts that if Keystone was not approved, oil sands companies could turn to rail to get the product out the door or would simply build a pipeline across the Rockies and ship the bitumen to China.

This is a crucial point because Obama said he would have neither truck nor trade with a pipeline that adds to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But we know Keystone really is a great “enabler” of the tar sands. Without pipelines oil executives are quite clear in saying that billions of dollars of projects would be stranded for decades. We know from a Reuters report that rail poses severe limitations in the shipment of bitumen to those Gulf Coast refineries.

And the Northern Gateway pipeline hat would aim to ship the gunk to China is hardly a sure thing. There will be major battles over that line from indigenous groups and it won’t even go beyond the drawing board if the Harper government is voted out of office next year, as polls seem to indicate now.

So this brings us back to what Obama will do.  Obama’s top aid, Denis McDonough, on the Sunday talk shows last week to say that everyone should hold off on firing up those welding torches because that report was only “one of many important inputs into the process.”

“What the president’s role is now is to protect this process from politics, let the experts, the expert agencies and the cabinet secretaries make their assessments both of the study that was put in on Friday as well as its impact on the national interest,” McDonough said.

One of the expert agencies will be the Environmental Protection Agency and it sharply criticized the previous environmental assessment from this consulting firm that is also facing conflict of interest allegations. It is hard to see how they will be any more enamored with this ‘final’ version.

After all the twists and turns of this project, it’s nearly impossible to decipher what Obama will do now. You could make a reasonable guess he might go for a quick approval over the next few months in order to help a couple of Democrats in the Senate under pressure in the November elections.

Or perhaps Obama, with an eye on his legacy that he fought the good fight on climate change, may wait until after November to make a considered decision. Free of the ballot box as a second term president, he could even take the bold move of rejecting it.

And now back to Canada. Any delay is a good delay if it means slowing the tar sands adventure, sometimes called the biggest resource project on the planet. Tar sands development has already disturbed 715 square miles of boreal forest – or more than the area of Toronto. A doubling of production has been approved – and no doubt will come to pass with the building of the infernal pipeline.

The development has destabilized our currency and helped gut the country’s once thriving manufacturing base. We are using vast amounts of natural gas and water to develop the resource, while producing huge pools of waste that will cost billions of dollars to clean. Now we are learning the pollution from the tar sands is even worse than feared.

So any delay will help this country. Neil Young’s recent tour against the tar sands stirred much needed debate in the country to look at what we are doing and where we are headed. Maybe one day we can really find the guts to stand up to Big Oil and our governmental enablers.

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