Was Keystone XL a huge mistake? Weighing the strategic importance of the tar sands pipeline fight

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Maybe it is the melancholy mood that comes with the changing seasons or just the angst that comes with a lull in the news cycle, but there has recently been some interesting debate within the environmental movement over whether the fight to block the Keystone XL pipeline was a wise strategy or not.

Two weeks ago, four activists wrote an op-ed arguing that the environmental movement needed to move beyond it's preoccupation with oil pipeline projects and instead challenge the expansion of fossil fuel projects wherever they appear.

And last week, Bill McKibben wrote that the movement must challenge the expansion of fossil fuel production everywhere, while also reiterating his belief that Keystone XL is Obama's "last chance" to show that he can stand up to the oil industry.

The latest and harshest critique comes from Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine who calls the Keystone XL fight a "huge mistake" for the environmentalist movement.

The Keystone movement developed in 2011, when environmentalists needed a cause to replace the failed cap-and-trade bill. It was only immediately following the 2012 election that the NRDC laid out a plan by which the EPA could effectively tackle existing power plants, the last big repository of unregulated emissions. The road map to solving climate change is far from certain: It involves writing a regulatory scheme to reign in existing power plants, surviving a legal challenge, and then, having credibly committed the U.S. to meeting Copenhagen standards, wrangling India, China, and others into a workable international treaty.

That plan is far from certain. But Keystone won’t affect the outcome much one way or the other. If Obama pulls off the EPA plan, then the U.S. can hit its emissions target even if it builds the pipeline. If he doesn’t, it won’t hit the target, even if it kills the pipeline.

You should read Chait's full argument, because it is rare to see such a well-respected progressive journalists come across as rude and dismissive of McKibben and NASA's James Hansen for their efforts in calling attention to the development of tar sands as a threat to climate change.

Unsurprisingly, Chait's post sparked many reactions, a few of which Andrew Sullivan compiled here.

For example, Charles Pierce at Esquire points out that trying to stop the construction of KXL is certainly not a mistake for those who would be most directly affected by the threat of oil spills.

The fight against the pipeline began as a citizen's movement because the people most directly affected by the project saw that the skids already were greased. It has been a citizen's movement ever since. Chait's argument for the EPA regulations as a more important goal for environmentalists is interesting, but off the point. The government can fight two important environmental battles at once; in fact, as the years go by, and climate change gets worse, it's going to have to. Go to Nebraska, Jon. Talk to the people there who have lost their land. Talk to the people who have been sold out by their elected leaders. Talk to the people who have been lied to, and who have lost control of a good part of their lives. Then tell me why this pipeline is the wrong fight at the wrong time.

And Joe Romm at Think Progress has a long and thorough rebuttal of Chait:

His analysis suffers from several flaws:
It assumes the environmental movement can do only one thing at a time.
It assumes stopping Keystone has no strategic value.
It assumes movement building has no intrinsic value (strategic or tactical).
It assumes EPA regs are a stand-alone slam dunk — one that will achieve its ends without a protracted fight requiring a vibrant grassroots movement.

To make a sweeping analogy, dismissing the Keystone fight simply because stopping Keystone won’t save the climate by itself, would be like dismissing the civil rights movement’s use of protests or boycotts or civil disobedience. Each individual action failed to achieve civil rights and yet somehow the movement triumphed.

Romm goes on to catch Chait misquoting McKibben, in what Chait had intended to be a damning example of McKibben's misjudgment.

But more importantly, Romm brings the debate back to the basic math of climate change.

Keystone is well worth stopping as an end in itself just for the multiple climate impacts from tar sands exploitation alone:

As a study I discussed last year makes clear, if the U.S. and Canada use only the proven reserves of the tar sands — 170 billion barrels, which we could do this century if production is merely quadrupled — we would blow out any chance of the U.S. and Canada contributing our share to the 2°C target. Or a 3C target.

Romm rightly concludes that this debate is ultimately about morality. That's been my take on Keystone XL and the debate over tar sands oil from the start. Yes, it's true that stopping a single pipeline won't keep all the tar sands in the ground, but to not try would be a failure of conscience.

And it's worth remembering that Keystone XL was chosen not arbitrarily, but because of the strategic nature of the approval process. Because KXL crossed an international border, the pressure from activists could be placed on Obama directly, rather than on multi-national oil companies. As I wrote in February, I believe this "outside game" pressure generated by McKibben and the anti-KXL movement helped create the political cover Obama needed to justify some of his executive actions he's taking on climate, including the new EPA rules on coal power. This point is certainly up for debate, but had the movement ignored KXL, I'm not sure we would have seen as much activist pressure on Obama to address the issue.

What do you think? Do you think the focus on Keystone XL been a distraction? Or is the symbolic nature of the pipeline significant enough to warrant this much attention?

Tags: Activism | Barack Obama | Bill McKibben | Global Climate Change | Oil | Oil Spill | Tar Sands