KXL – rejected! Where we go from here.

Posted November 6th, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on KXL – rejected! Where we go from here.

President Obama just announced that – finally! – he is rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s a motivating moment for the “No KXL” movements in Canada and the U.S., a vindication of years of activism and great organizing. Coalitions were built, a lot of people were mobilized, and millions of people in this country received a needed education about the oil industry.

Video: Obama announcement on KXL

Like any strategic or tactical victory, it is important to learn from it, assess what worked, how this moment came about, see the political and economic context in which it occurred – all those things that help a movement understand itself. Tremendous energy was unleashed and some inspiring creative tactics were employed to draw the attention of the public and the media. Formerly unlikely coalitions came together, and it will be crucial that these be nurtured in the days to come. It is important to take a moment to assess where we are and how to use this new energy to even greater effect in this oil saturated culture of ours.

The question of how much Obama felt free to make this decision because the economics of the pipeline had changed is also one that needs dispassionate discussion – not to take anything away from the political significance of this decision and the impacts of activism, but to be clear about what this does and does not do to stop tar sands dilbit sludge from moving through pipelines into the international market. We still have the stuff flowing through Enbridge pipelines across the Upper Midwest. That has been a far more challenging reality because Enbridge, the company that owns that network, already has pipelines crossing the international border and can claim that it does not need another presidential permit. TransCanada, builder of Keystone (the southern portion of which is fully operational) did. And that’s what gave the movement this specific organizing target for obstructing the northern portion of KXL – President Obama and his power to grant the permit or not.

Laying pipeline in Alberta. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Laying pipeline in Alberta. Photo: Margaret Swedish

In his remarks today, Obama was also correct in acknowledging the market forces at work. To make expensive oil sands extraction financially feasible, oil prices need to stay at $75 per barrel or above. Persistent low oil prices could be a death knell for this industry. If it can’t move the stuff out of Alberta, then what?

Meanwhile, oil prices have plunged in the past couple of years as the U.S., mostly via fracking, has ramped up its domestic oil production. We all experience this every time we fill the gas tank. Today’s price is $45-47 per barrel, and the one year forecast is for the price to remain around $51 pb. Canada and its former, recently ousted Prime Minister Stephen Harper, made a bad bet by tying so much of its national economy to the attempt to use this landlocked goo, the oil sands of northern Alberta, to become a global oil power. For Alberta in particular, it’s been a really bad gamble.

Recently Royal Dutch Shell informed Canadian regulators that it was withdrawing its application to mine an area just north of Ft. McMurray that was once expected to produce 200,000 barrels per day. The main reasons: the lack of capacity to get the oil to market and low oil prices.

The industry has desperately needed pipeline capacity to move Alberta dilbit to market, but has met fierce resistance not only in the U.S., but west across B.C. where First Nation communities have pushed back against enormous pressure, including nine-figure financial incentives, to stop construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Blocked by opposition to move dilbit west to the B.C. coast or south to Texas, TransCanada then proposed construction of a 2,858 mile-long pipeline all the way to its Atlantic Coast, a project it called Energy East.

All of these plans ran into stiff political opposition and market forces that pulled the rug out from under them, and now the industry is in well-deserved trouble. It is way too early to pronounce death to the tar sands industrial projects in Alberta, but problems are mounting. Obama’s decision only increases the economic pressure on the industry, removing the southern route across the Great Plains – at least for now.

BP refinery in Whiting IN. Photo: Margaret Swedish

BP refinery in Whiting IN. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Meanwhile, those of us who live amid the tentacles of the Enbridge pipeline network have a different situation. The decades-old oil pipelines already exist, are being expanded, and dilbit sludge is already flowing to refineries in Superior WI or Whiting IN and from Whiting down to Cushing and the Gulf of Mexico. BP, which owns the mammoth refinery in Whiting is in the process of a major expansion of its capacity to refine Alberta’s bitumen into synthetic crude oil. So while there is reason to be thrilled with this victory, we are also deeply concerned about the threats these pipelines and refineries pose for this part of the world. Opposition to Enbridge has grown as more people in range of potential disasters become aware, but the struggle is more difficult – to stop what already exists and has the support of federal and state governments.

The Enbridge pipeline spill of a million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, and the pipeline rupture in Adams County WI in 2012, are recent horrors never fully cleaned up. And the threat of a 56 year old pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac keeps a lot of people awake nights when one considers what a spill could mean to the Great Lakes, especially in winter when it would be impossible to clean it up.

Drilling a fracking well in western PA. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Drilling a fracking well in western PA. Photo: Margaret Swedish

What all of this reminds us of is that we remain an oil-based economy. While activists have succeeded in impeding the tar sands extraction industry’s transportation network, domestic drilling and fracking for oil and gas proceeds apace. While fracking has a problematic, and probably short-term future, wells are still being drilled in many states in the west and along the Marcellus and Utica shale plays in the east. Low oil prices have hit the Bakken field in North Dakota and Montana because the challenge there is also all about expensive technology and the costs of transport. Without a pipeline infrastructure, companies fracking the Bakken field rely on rail transport to move oil, and that has come with dangers of exploding trains and growing local opposition. Trains move through small towns and big cities in full view of the population, so these dangers are harder to hide since they can’t be buried underground.

In the wake of Obama’s announcement, I think it would be fascinating to have a conversation about whether or not the cheap oil prices that have contributed to the politics around this decision is a good thing or a bad thing for the planet. One of the consumer responses to cheap gasoline has been what looks like a record-breaking year for purchase of personal vehicles, especially SUVs and pickup trucks. Oil still keeps us moving, keeps the factories churning out stuff, shipping packages to our doorsteps, moving the food we eat around the hemisphere. It will be a long while before we can put the final nail in the coffin of big oil and the damage it’s doing to our planet. But these efforts around the transportation network, and the many of us who have been to the tar sands region, or to the BP refinery in Whiting, or who have witnessed the long oil trains with the red 1267 placards – all of this is raising consciousness, inspiring activism, and even having some strategic successes along the way.

Tar sands resistance March in MN. Photo: Thomas Frank

Tar sands resistance March in MN. Photo: Thomas Frank

I guess the point for me in the wake of this decision is – realize there is power in mobilizing our citizens to get involved, to take action. So, don’t stop now! Keep going. In these next few weeks, with the UN Climate Conference in Paris approaching, the world will be focused on these things. Millions of people will be in the streets or active in their communities doing advocacy, education, communication, and more. It’s a great time to build a movement that is broader, deeper, more engaged, and now even more inspired.

Margaret Swedish



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