Photo: Jungbim via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Today saw the US State Department's final public hearing before the Obama administration reaches a decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,700 mile pipeline would, as you likely know, carry exceptionally dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the US Gulf Coast -- endangering local environments and the stability of the global climate along the way. The hearing was a spirited, colorful event: Farmers, students, union workers, religious leaders, and indigenous people all turned out to plead with Obama to stop the pipeline. And you can probably guess who was in favor of having it built ...Industry leaders! Folks that stand to earn a profit from the construction of the pipeline. It's really that simple. Watching the hearings, it becomes crystal, crystal clear what divides the Keystone XL supporters and its opponents: Money. Those who stand to make some are in favor, and those whose lives stand to be ruined by it -- or recognize that many others' will be -- oppose it. Crazy, right?
Two South Dakota ranchers took the podium and literally wept at the prospect of seeing a pipeline plow through the land surrounding their homes. Right before that, power company employees stepped up and extolled the virtues of getting oil from a "friendly neighbor" instead of those big, scary "unstable, unfriendly" countries in the Middle East.
The contrast, needless to say, was striking. Hearing the passionless talking points recited next to truly heartfelt pleas to protect homes elevated and amplified the genuine sentiment.
So it was with the disparity between the indigenous people and, for example, the TransCanada execs. One exec mumbled through his prepared statement, assuring us that the pipeline was safe, claiming it would create jobs, and making the lone decent point that tankers were more prone to spill than pipelines. Indigenous tribes, led by Chief Bill Erasmus, spoke up, saying they were "united in their opposition" against the pipeline. The tar sands operation is already devastating the boreal forest regions many of them call home, and threatens water supplies that they rely on. Expanding and continuing the operations is an existential threat to these people.
Once again: Corporate interests vs. a sustainable existence for real live people. Tough call, I know.
John Elwood, an American evangelical leader, Jacek Orzechowski, O.F.M., a Franciscan friar, and other religious leaders all came forward to argue that approving the pipeline, which would contribute to global climate change, threaten public health, and despoil the environment, was morally indefensible on those grounds.
And yet the execs and shills stand up with their talking points, repeating that deplorable 'friendly neighbor' line and repeating over-inflated job creation stats. In fact that was the entire argument in favor -- and of course, both are bunk. Especially the former: Tar sands oil has been shown by numerous sources to be destined for export -- not for use in the US. And one refinery that will process the stuff is partly owned by Aramco, the Saudi oil company, meaning those scary 'unfriendly' Middle Eastern oil exporters would actually profit from the pipeline. And while there's no doubt that the pipeline would create some jobs in the U.S., the number TransCanada points to is way too optimistic:
In fact, a researcher from Cornell Law took the podium to read an analysis that found that more jobs could be destroyed by Keystone XL than it creates. She also pointed out that TransCanada had grossly overstated the jobs figures that would be created in the U.S.
That said, there's one group of people who truly and desperately feel that they need the pipeline: local laborers. Represented in the hearing by the union LiUNA, the group sent many speakers to the podium, each of whom called for a pipeline project that promised to give them much-needed jobs. But there are other jobs, of course. Clean energy jobs that don't imperil the nation's future, nor threaten to disrupt the balance of the global climate system. It's tempting to grasp at those jobs, any jobs, that would indeed spring up with even a destructive project like the Keystone XL -- but the longterm effects are simply too devastating to make the tradeoff worthwhile.
So much is on the line, in fact, that 1,250 people, the nation's top climate scientist among them, were willing to get arrested to protest the pipeline's construction. Others have been 'occupying' the State Department in a show of protest -- and every single environmental group has called on Obama to halt the proposed pipeline. It's now up to the White House as to whether it will heed these people's fevered calls, or once again cater to industry interests.
Watch the Keystone XL hearing here.