The Keystone XL Pipeline was designed to carry oil to the Gulf of Mexico from the Canadian tar sands, a particularly dirty source of crude oil. According to NASA’s top climate scientist James Hansen, the full development of the Pipeline would mean “game over for the climate”. Infuriated by this threat to human security, environmental activists have organized rapidly in the past six months. 1252 activists were arrested in peaceful protest in August and over 10,000 showed up to surround the White House in November. A few weeks later, Obama chose to postpone his decision on KXL until after the Presidential election. House Republicans responded to this by pinning an article on KXL to the payroll tax cut extension bill, effectively forcing a decision on the pipeline within 60 days.
When forced to make the decision, Obama said no to the KXL construction permit.
In some ways, this is a victory. Obama rejected an environmentally destructive proposal after the greatest surge of environmental activism in recent history. Normally fractured environmental groups joined forces to fight for the same goal, and won. The power of people beat out the financial capital of the biggest corporations in the world. This, after all, is why activism matters!
In other ways, however, Obama’s decision is not significant. TransCanada, the corporation proposing the pipeline, will reapply for the construction permit in two weeks with a slightly different route. The State Department will then take a year to complete a new investigation of its environmental effect, and the plan may be approved after that. In other words, Obama’s decision was not final.
Furthermore, as he announced his decision to deny the permit, Obama declared continued support for domestic oil development. What happened to the President who announced in 2008 that he would end “the tyranny of oil”? What happened to the President who pays attention to reality?
According to the International Energy Association, we have five years to seriously slow fossil fuel development, or else all hope of stopping irreversible climate change will be lost. And the IEA is a conservative body, using standards for safe levels of atmospheric CO2 concentration that are often considered too high.
With five years at most to stop climate change, we cannot afford to develop fossil fuels further. Supporters of KXL like to say that it is just one more pipeline and its negative impact on the climate is worth 5000 temporary jobs. Some critics of the anti-KXL movement like pointing out that it would take 1000 years to fully develop the tar sands, arguing that Hansen’s “game over” quote doesn’t apply and KXL isn’t actually that important to climate change.
These arguments all miss the point. We don’t have 1000 years to wait for the tar sands to be completely developed—we have five years until the window of opportunity to combat climate change is “closed forever”, according to Faith Birol, chief economist of the IEA. No pipeline, KXL or otherwise, is “just another pipeline” at this point. Every piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that we build locks us into decades of deadly pollution that we cannot afford.
We have to reverse the trend, stop developing fossil fuels, and power the world using clean, safe energy sources. This vision is not stupid or unrealistic. Engineers at Stanford and UC Davis have found that it would be possible to provide the entire world’s energy needs from clean, safe sources by 2050, keeping energy costs similar to those today. This is not a question of technology or economics—it is a question of political will.
How do we get there? For a start, we can stop wasting $10 billion each year on fossil fuel subsidies. We can pass Representative Pete Stark’s “Save Our Climate Act” to set up a fee and dividend carbon taxing scheme which would protect citizens, encourage development of safe energy sources, and reduce the deficit. American families shouldn’t have to worry about their financial situation being jeopardized by volatile oil prices. American families shouldn’t spend their hard-earned money on energy that causes air pollution, damaging their health and increasing our nation’s healthcare costs. We want our money going to clean energy programs that create sustainable jobs for Americans and strengthen our communities.
Clean energy development and investments in energy efficiency would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and save us billions of dollars. Continued investments in fossil fuel infrastructure such as Keystone XL will cost us billions of dollars and destroy lives.
Do you really want to live in a country where corporate fossil fuel dictators steal your health, corrupt your democracy, and destroy your communities and safety for their profits? I don’t. Join me in the movement to win back our country and build a better future.
Alli J. Welton ’15, a member of Students For a Just and Stable Future, lives in Greenough Hall.