When oil spills from Alberta’s tar sands, it’s an environmental disaster of a different kind. Crude oil extracted from tar sands is viscous and toxic—diluted with chemicals and notoriously difficult to clean up. That’s one of the many reasons the nearly decade-long opposition to the proposed Keystone XL, an expansion of the original line, has been so fierce.
It is also why the Monday approval of KXL by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, just four days after a Keystone rupture spilled 210,000 gallons in South Dakota, initially seemed so discouraging. The spill is being called the largest in South Dakota history by state officials. Tribes, environmental groups, and landowners are pointing to the spill as more evidence that the KXL expansion shouldn’t be built.
Yet the Nebraska PSC didn’t take that Keystone spill into account during its deliberations. Legally, it couldn’t, thanks to a 2011 state law that prohibits “safety considerations, including the risk or impact of spills or leaks” from being factored into pipeline routing decisions.
Yes, that’s discouraging. It’s discouraging when it seems that our legal systems are set up to protect Big Oil rather than the health and safety of people, land, and water.
While it’s true that, technically, the Nebraska Commission did indeed clear the final regulatory hurdle for the Keystone XL—as news headlines have said— it’s also true that the path toward construction is less certain than those headlines might suggest. In fact, Monday’s news is not a decisive win for the KXL at all. Here’s why:
1. This alternative route is actually a setback for TransCanada.
One way to interpret Monday’s decision is that it was actually a setback for TransCanada, the company that owns and operates the original Keystone line and the Keystone XL expansion line.
On Monday, the commission did not approve TransCanada’s preferred route but instead approved a different—and longer—route, called the “mainline alternative.”
According to the Lincoln Journal Star, this route would impact 40 new landowners in new counties. That means more opposition and more expense.
That’s additional pressure on TransCanada.
TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling hinted at this in his response Monday: “As a result of today’s decision, we will conduct a careful review of the Public Service Commission’s ruling while assessing how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project.”
So now’s the time to put more pressure on the company. And tribes and environmental activists are doing just that.
2. Tribes and other environmental activists are standing together.
As with the Dakota Access pipeline, the outcry against Keystone XL is helping to build a broad coalition across tribes and Native and non-Native allies.
Immediately following the Monday announcement, the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion—an alliance of 150 tribes and First Nations in the U.S. and Canada—issued a statement that they would stand together against the pipeline. “The Treaty Alliance of Tribes up and down the Keystone XL pipeline route will be standing strong along with all our other allies to beat back this threat to our water, our people, and our future,” said Chairman Larry Wright Jr. of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska in a statement issued by the alliance.
Also on Monday, as reported by Sarah Sunshine Manning in TruthDig, tribal nations and environmental organizations met on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota to sign an “International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects.” Since then, the coalition has called on people across the continent to pledge to join the front line opposition. This Promise to Protect has already collected 8,000 signatures, according to Common Dreams.
3. Divestment activism continues to pressure funders.
There’s reason to believe that divestment activism is gaining momentum. Just last week, Reuters reported that the trillion-dollar Norwegian Oil Fund is proposing to divest billions from oil and gas stocks—which would affect around $37 billion of investments in oil companies.
Meanwhile, cities, tribes, and individuals have already divested more than $5 billion from banks extending credit to fund the Dakota Access pipeline. And since May, the divestment movement has expanded to include targeting banks that fund tar sands pipelines. Recently, a coalition of indigenous women environmental leaders traveled to Europe to demand banks stop funding fossil fuel infrastructure.
If TransCanada’s cautious response that it will assess “how [Monday’s] decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project” is any indication, now is not the time for feeling defeated by Nebraska. Now’s the perfect time for activists to ramp up.