The U.S. State Department recently released its Final Environmental Impact Statement, or FEIS, for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a project by Canadian energy company TransCanada, that would carry close to 1 million barrels per day of the world’s dirtiest oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico for foreign export. Feb. 5 marked the beginning of a 30-day public comment period followed by a 60-day review period, after which President Barack Obama will make what could be the most important environmental decision of his presidency: whether or not to approve the Keystone pipeline.
On March 3, I will be risking arrest at the State Department building in San Francisco alongside over a thousand other young people across the nation. We are participating in XL Dissent — the largest act of youth civil disobedience regarding the environment in decades — to deliver the following public comment to Obama: Reject Keystone XL!
The science is clear: Sixty percent to 80 percent of current fossil fuel reserves must remain underground and unburned to avert runaway climate change. Canadian tar sands — the world’s third-largest crude oil reserves — are among the dirtiest energy sources on Earth, with a well-to-wheel carbon footprint at least 14 percent to 40 percent higher than conventional crude. Leading scientists have sounded the alarm on developing the mega-polluting tar sands, including top climate expert James Hansen, who warns that it could spell “game over for the climate.” Keystone XL would be a fuse to one of the world’s largest carbon bombs. At a time when we must radically shift toward clean and just energy solutions, this pipeline represents the antithesis of sustainable development.
The State Department’s flawed and highly problematic FEIS doesn’t deny Keystone’s climate impact; it downplays it. Written by Environmental Resources Management Inc. — a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute with ties to TransCanada — the report concludes that Keystone XL could add the annual carbon equivalent of nearly 6 million new cars on the road — hardly negligible. Other studies, however, reveal a much greater impact, closer to the annual tailpipe emissions of 37 million new cars or 51 coal-fired power plants.
In a speech last June, Obama promised he would reject the Keystone pipeline should it “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” While Keystone clearly fails the president’s climate test, its proponents continue pushing with asinine arguments. They contend that if the pipeline isn’t built, Canadian tar sands oil will find its way to market at the same capacity some other way — a fallacious and logically absurd claim. This twisted logic suggests we ought to give alcoholics the keys to a brewery because they’ll probably drink anyway. Moreover, we know that Keystone is key to accelerating Canadian tar sands production — even industry officials admit as much. If Obama is to stick to his climate action plan, a critical piece to maintaining a livable planet, he has got to keep tar sands in the ground by giving Keystone the boot.
Proponents also told us this pipeline will create 20,000 new jobs and increase American energy security. Wrong again. The State Department confirmed in its FEIS that constructing Keystone XL would create 3,900 temporary jobs and a whopping 35 permanent jobs — not a whole lot when compared to the nearly 24,000 new permanent solar jobs created in the United States in 2013. As for enhancing American energy security, this pipeline would do no such thing. Canadian tar sands pumped through Keystone would be destined for more lucrative foreign markets such as China, hence its terminus at the Gulf of Mexico. TransCanada refuses to promise that the oil would be used in the United States.
As the mainstream debate rages during this final review period, all too absent from it are the impacts of our decisions on communities living on the frontlines of tar sands extraction, refining and transportation — disproportionately low-income communities of color. Rejecting Keystone XL is about standing in solidarity with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation living at ground zero of tar sands development, whose land and water have been poisoned by tar sands mining and whose treaty rights have been trampled on in the name of resource extraction — all to meet the bottom line of the world’s richest industry. It’s about standing with farmers and ranchers along Keystone’s proposed route who have been bullied by TransCanada into one-sided contracts and whose water and farmland would be at grave risk from inevitable spills. And it’s about standing with the Bay Area residents of Richmond, Benicia, Martinez and Rodeo, who live in the shadow of pollutive refineries processing tar sands — among other dirty fuels — and who already bear disproportionately high rates of asthma and cancer. These communities are boldly defending their health and children’s futures daily, utilizing everything from lawsuits to direct action. Because the stakes are so high, it’s imperative that we, as people with privilege — people who still have clean water and breathable air — engage alongside them.
As the base that elected Obama, it’s on us to hold him to his promise of being an environmental and climate leader, not a pipeline champion. This is our call to action. Let’s make some noise.
Submit your public comment to the State Department by March 7, and join UC Berkeley students alongside over a thousand youth around the nation from March 1 to 3 for XL Dissent to say no to Keystone XL!
Ophir Bruck is a fourth-year at UC Berkeley studying society and environment as well as an organizer with the California Student Sustainability Coalition.