Who’s calling the shots? Over 1 million add their voices to Keystone XL decision-making process
It’s a busy time for Canada.
No, I am not talking about the Leafs making it to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2004. I am referring to the continued – and ramped up – lobbying efforts of the federal government to sell the Albertan oil sands abroad. Federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver was in Brussels last week attempting to convince the EU to relax its categorisation of oil sands crude as “dirty”. Minister of Environment Peter Kent followed in his footsteps across the pond and is in London this week to push for the same thing. Oliver has already been to D.C. four times since the beginning of this year to lobby US senators and members of Congress to support the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Even the Prime Minister is joining in: Stephen Harper is in New York this week to pitch the oil sands first to the Council of Foreign Relations and then to Wall Street.
Hey, big spender!
Because despite claiming to be a fiscally conservative government, and despite cutting federal spending in major programmes (science and research, public broadcasting, environmental protection, pensions, employment insurance, the arts), millions of taxpayer dollars have been allocated to oil sands promotion with no end in sight. A new website aimed at its southern neighbour was launched and CAD $9 million worth of ads have been taken out in major US publications, with another $16.5 million planned for the next 18 months. On the provincial level, the Albertan government bought a $30,000 full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times to advertise the oil sands as a “green” energy option. Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird has also been to D.C. to discuss Keystone XL with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Kerry’s first international meeting in the position.
Oliver is taking big swings in his quest to get the Keystone XL proposal passed. He recently attacked Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, creator of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and former US Vice-President, for making “wildly inaccurate and exaggerated comments.” Oliver said former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who titled his famous oil sands op-ed ‘Game Over for the Climate’, should be “ashamed” and decried his views as “exaggerated rhetoric.” The minister is also taking aim at all oil sands opponents, labelling them “radicals”, “desperate” and saying their arguments contained “shrillness”, “hyperbole” and “exaggeration.”
Who makes the final decision?
An enormous and concerted effort by the Canadian government to get the pipeline proposal passed, then. But who actually gets to make the final decision? The proposed pipeline would run from Alberta to the Gulf Coast; as it crosses an international border, the US State Department must review the proposal and make a recommendation to US president Obama, based on whether the project is in the “national interest.” The president would then decide whether to permit the project or not.
John Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State gave hope to climate change and environmental activists who were familiar with his reputation as a “climate hawk” and experience in UN climate change talks in the past. Kerry is laudably vocal about his support for renewable energies. However, because he bases his support on financial and economic instead of climate grounds, he leaves the door ajar for fossil fuels.
The environmental impact assessment…
Even so, his Department of State’s Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline proposal came as a shock to many people. The 2,000-page statement was quietly released on a Friday afternoon in March 2013 – the best time to make contentious, controversial or unpopular announcements that you would rather the press not pick up.
The document is contentious, all right. Its two most questionable conclusions are that:
- The bitumen extracted from the oil sands is not much more carbon intensive than conventional oil; and
- The pipeline would have negligible impact on climate change because oil sands extraction will happen whether or not there is a Keystone XL.
Multiple reports counter both these claims. The claim that oil sands crude emits 5-15% more greenhouse gases than conventional oil is hotly contested. A European Commission report, itself compiled from multiple reports and analyses, puts the number significantly higher, at 13-41%. The statement’s prediction that bitumen would continue to be extracted at the same rate regardless of Keystone XL is naïve at best. The alternatives to this pipeline are rail or road transport, which both have drastically lower capacity, and other pipeline proposals – such as Northern Gateway – which face stiff opposition within Canada.
The vast amount of time and money already spent by the Canadian government on ads and other lobbying efforts both north and south of the 49th parallel is an indication of how important Keystone XL is in accelerating oil sands extraction. As Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska rhetorically asks: “Why would TransCanada spend billions on building the pipeline and millions on lobbying unless this piece of infrastructure is the – not a – but the linchpin for the expansion of tar sands?”
…was written by the oil industry
The most controversial part about the Environmental Impact Statement, however, is not the contents. It’s the writers.
What should have been an independent environmental impact assessment turned out to be anything but: a large part of the writing was contracted out to a consulting firm with an alarming number of ties to Big Oil. One of the writers was previously on the payrolls of oil industry companies including ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips – and TransCanada, the company that is trying to get approval to build Keystone XL. Another contributor to the report previously worked for Shell Oil, and yet another for Koch Gateway Pipeline Company. The consulting firm itself has worked for Chevron, an investor of the oil sands. The conflicts of interest are obvious and worrying.
Over one million citizens react
Friday afternoon or not, though, the report made headlines in both mainstream and special interest media (e.g. NYT, WaPo, Politico, Mother Jones, Grist) and triggered immediate criticism from civil society organisations such as 350.org, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Oil Change International. They weren’t alone. By the end of the 45-day public comment period, 1.2 million comments had been received. The most high-profile and significant comment came from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was “concerned” by the report and rated it “insufficient”, sharply criticising the assumptions made in order to reach its conclusions and recommending the State Department review its analysis.
If this pipeline were about energy security in the US, an obvious alternative to Albertan crude would be clean, renewable energies such as solar and wind. Multiple cities and states in the US have already pledged to be powered by 100% renewable energy, from San Francisco, San Jose, and Lancaster, CA to Greensburg, KS and the state of Vermont (with a 90% target). But Keystone XL was never about energy independence, even though it has been pitched that way. The Environmental Impact Statement itself admits that the pipeline will not change the US’s ability to meet its own energy demands. This is because the crude that would be carried by the pipeline is bound for the Gulf Coast to be exported abroad. Domestic energy consumption does not enter the equation.
Back in 2008, TransCanada submitted their first application. This Obama rejected early last year, saying the rushed decision deadline “prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary.” TransCanada promptly sent in a new application. Another decision from Obama was expected by June 2013, but a US official reveals that he will once again postpone the decision, likely until the end of 2013 or even 2014. The reason given was that “the president has to be able to show that the administration looked under every stone to ensure it knew as much as it possibly could about the impact of Keystone.” The EPA makes it clear that there are more than a few stones still unturned in the State Department’s report. Add over one million voices in opposition to the pipeline – including those of 150 prominent donors of Obama’s campaign – to the fray, and the president may yet decide to keep his promise to fight climate change and “to protect future generations” by rejecting the Keystone XL proposal.
Friday, May 17th, 2013