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The Undead Pipeline Returns

The Keystone XL pipeline is back, sort of. But will its promoters’ tactics cause a property rights backlash?

signatures by 350

Tuesday Feb 14, representatives from a coalition of over 30 environmental and progressive groups delivered more than 800,000 messages opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Photo courtesy of 350.org

A month ago, when the Obama Administration declared its intention to scrap the permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline, it was clear the project was only, in the words of Billy Crystal’s character from The Princess Bride, “mostly dead” and not “all dead.”

Obama’s decision to reject the pipeline was a major victory for the cross-partisan coalition that opposed the project, but Keystone XL also has the backing of several of the world’s largest oil companies. The American Petroleum Institute issued barefaced threats early this year, warning the president he would face “huge political consequences” if he blocked the Keystone XL project. This week, energy company TransCanada declared its intention to revive the pipeline: It is immediately beginning work on a section of the pipeline running from Oklahoma to Texas (a move it’s capable of because that segment doesn’t cross international borders, and therefore doesn’t need State Department approval). In a press statement, activist Bill McKibben called the move “the usual ugly power grab and land grab by the fossil fuel industry.”

“Many are saying, ‘Well, this pipeline means jobs!’” writes Greg Steussel for the right-wing activist group We Texans. “But, is that a comforting thought when any company can come and take your property for its own profit?”

The southern section of the pipeline will not carry oil from the Alberta tar sands, a dirty fuel source that represents a dire climate-change threat, according to scientist James Hansen. But the company still hopes to build the full route to Canada: TransCanada will also submit a new application to build the northern section through the Great Plains and across the border. The company claims the new route will bypass the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region of Nebraska but has not finalized any details with the state. Activists fear the route may still cross the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of drinking and irrigation water for Nebraska and seven other states. TransCanada CEO Russ Girling insists the application will be “processed expeditiously.” So far, the White House is offering no resistance. “We commit to take every step possible to expedite the necessary permits,” White House press secretary Jay Carney announced on Monday.

Activists in Nebraska and in other states along the planned route were key to stopping the first pipeline permit. In Texas, TransCanada’s strategies are once again alienating locals, especially conservatives. Farmer Julia Trigg Crawford called the company’s tactics “bullying.” Crawford has recently become a minor media star while fighting TransCanada’s eminent domain claims in court. Several dozen protesters including both Occupiers and Tea Partiers— gathered at her court hearing.

No one expected activists to be able to block Keystone XL so effectively for this long...“Like previous resurrection efforts, this revival attempt will be met with fierce opposition,” writes Jamie Henn for 350.org.

Republican leaders and other pipeline supporters have offered up a wide range of claims about how many jobs Keystone XL (ultimately a temporary construction project) will create—anywhere from 20,000 to 500,000. But a series of media reports and studies say even the lower figures are wildly exaggerated. A Cornell University study argued that the project would create fewer than 5,000 jobs and could cause job losses in some parts of the country. The State Department predicted it would create about 5,000 to 6,000 jobs over three years, most of them temporary. It’s unusual for a single infrastructure project to merit so much discussion both in Congress and on the campaign trail, but the oil industry has pumped millions of dollars into lobbying on Keystone XL and appears to have won fierce advocates in Congress and among the Republican presidential candidates.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the jobs claims aren’t convincing some conservatives, who oppose eminent domain and any government policy that usurps property rights. “Many are saying, ‘Well, this pipeline means jobs!’” writes Greg Steussel for the right-wing activist group We Texans. “But, is that a comforting thought when any company can come and take your property for its own profit?”

This week’s announcements are certainly a setback for the movement that has fought the pipeline over the last several months. On the other hand, no one expected activists to be able to block Keystone XL so effectively for this long. It’s clear—based on the responses from Congressional Republicans, presidential candidates, and oil industry executives—that the $7 billion project means much to the oil industry. But opponents are equally resolute: “Like previous resurrection efforts, this revival attempt will be met with fierce opposition,” writes Jamie Henn for 350.org.


Madeline Ostrander 2011Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Madeline is YES! Magazine's senior editor.

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