Keystone XL Debate Prioritizes Politics over Economic, Environmental Realities

Chloe Vassot, Contributing Writer

In navigating the political obstacle course necessary for its approval, the Keystone XL pipeline has all but proved itself “the little pipeline that could.”

At this point, the pipeline’s creation seems almost inevitable. Though a bill to approve the construction of the pipeline was defeated in the Senate on Nov. 18, Republicans have vowed to revive it when they take control of the Senate in January. The New York Times called the Keystone XL controversy “one of the most fractious and expensive battles of the Obama presidency,” and now there is speculation that the president may not veto the bill if — or when — it passes in 2015. It’s been a long road for the proposed pipeline, which almost quietly gained approval in 2011 under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At one time, it was neither hailed as a miraculous job creator nor vilified as the single most evil and environmentally destructive thing ever envisioned. Now, after the investment of millions of dollars spent in advertising trying to either kill it or build it, the pipeline’s creation is back to seeming nearly certain.

The contention surrounding Keystone XL hasn’t hinged on the facts of its potential effects on the environment or the economy, though the rhetoric of the debate implies otherwise. The pipeline has become a symbol of the environmental movement versus the Big Oil lobby, and now it has been appropriated as a prop in the partisan political theater of Washington, D.C.

The political right has professed to love the pipeline for its economic advantages and job creating power. However, sources ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart have pointed out that the pipeline is only expected to create 35 permanent jobs.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, have fiercely opposed Keystone XL because of the carbon emissions it will produce, because of the risk of leaks and because the tar sands oil the pipeline would transport is implicated in the destruction of Canada’s boreal forests.

I am, admittedly, sympathetic with the arguments of environmentalists, but their side has lacked clarity in articulating the actual effects Keystone XL will have. Keystone XL is not the only factor that will cause the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands and the degradation of ancient forests, and it will not save the forest environment if Keystone XL dies a legislative death.

The boreal forests are already being uprooted. Keystone XL is a shortcut corridor proposed to supplement TransCanada Corporation’s already-operational Keystone Pipeline System. The XL pipeline will transport crude oil to U.S. refineries faster, but the Keystone System began delivering this oil in 2010 and continues to do so.

And while fights over Keystone XL have raged, TransCanada expanded its U.S. pipeline system by constructing the Gulf Coast Pipeline, which carries oil from Oklahoma to Texas, in 2012. The Gulf Coast Pipeline became operational in late 2013 with none of the national outcry and debate that dogs Keystone XL.

If Keystone XL is approved and built, it will contribute to further environmental degradation and have the potential for leaks, just like all the other pipelines already operating in America. It will also contribute to CO2 emissions, yet it will still account for less than 1 percent of the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and a relatively small contribution to worldwide emission figures. The fight around Keystone XL has been incongruous with the pipeline’s reality.

Politicians have focused disproportionately on this particular pipeline not because of a knowledge of its potential devastating (or miraculous) effects, but because it has been a convenient political prop and symbol for their individual environmental stances. But relative to its actual importance, choosing to focus on Keystone XL has been a waste of energy and resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere.

The symbolic importance of the pipeline is clearly exemplified by the case of Senator Mary Landrieu, the imperiled Democrat who, facing a runoff election, fervently supported the pipeline construction bill to woo her Louisiana constituents. According to The New York Times, Landrieu tried to convince her fellow Democrats to vote for it by arguing that this would help the president by giving him something to veto (assuming he doesn’t approve the pipeline to use it as a bargaining chip with the right). Her efforts failed with the bill’s defeat, but not before revealing quite clearly how political self-interest can supersede the actual substance and ramifications of legislation in Congress.

And that leaves Keystone XL in the politically charged present, with a Republican legislative victory and maybe 35 jobs in the proposal’s foreseeable future. But we can hope. Maybe Obama will trade pipeline approval for some beneficial act of political drama — like concrete climate change legislation or an end to the fight against Obamacare. Only time and politics will tell.