Mark Brooks is a journalist, broadcaster and environmental educator based in Ottawa. He hosts an environment show on CKCU radio and has written for numerous publications including the Globe and Mail, Alternatives Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, Carbon Markets North America, among others. He also worked for years as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada in the departments of Finance, Transport, Health, Industry and the Privy Council Office. He posts interviews and commentary on environmental and economics issues at www.earthgauge.ca.
Last weekend’s rally in Washington, D.C. is being called the largest climate change rally in history. At least 35,000-40,000 people from all over North America came out on what was an unseasonably cold and windy winter day to demand that U.S. President Barack Obama deny approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and make good on his stated intentions to take serious action to address the climate crisis.
The rally included speeches by Bill McKibben of 350.org, who told the assembled crowd, “For 25 years our government has basically ignored the climate crisis: now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work…We shouldn't have to be here - science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that money."
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who was arrested a week earlier protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House, said, “President Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children. Today, we are asking him to use that pen to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous, export pipeline will never be built.”
Canada was well represented by a number of indigenous leaders, including Chief Jacqueline Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation. "The Yinka Dene Alliance of British Columbia is seeing the harm from climate change to our peoples and our waters,” said Thomas, Yinka Dene Alliance co-founder. "We see the threat of taking tar sands out of the Earth and bringing it through our territories and over our rivers. The harm being done to people in the tar sands region can no longer be Canada's dirty secret."
Will any of this make a difference? Even while the demonstration was underway, self-proclaimed environmentalists such as New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin was criticizing the demonstrators, writing that “a tight focus on Obama’s decision over the pipeline could be counterproductive if the hope is to build policies that might someday reduce the need for oil, whether the source is Alberta oil sands, the floor of the Gulf of Mexico or the Niger River delta.”
Many climate activists did not take kindly to Revkin’s comments, with journalist-turned-activist Wen Stephenson tweeting, “50,000 people come out to fight for our kids' future, and you dump on it. You are what we're fighting.”
We can sit around and fill our blogs with reasons why this or that solution is the wrong one, inferior to some better one that we’d already have, goldarnit, if those meddling pushers-of-other-solutions weren’t 'distracting' from ours. We can fall in love with the ineffable intellectual tangle, as Revkin has, and accept that anything specific enough to build an activist campaign around will be meaningless in the context of global energy demand and emissions…But some people want to fight! Some people actually haul themselves out from behind their keyboards, call a bunch of friends, put on warm clothes, and go stomp around in public yelling about it.
Tensions are running high, as is often the case when so much is at stake. But is Revkin right? Is fighting Keystone the best strategic move or should we be directing our energies elsewhere? I was at the protest in D.C. and had the opportunity to speak with a number of climate activists about what lies ahead for the movement. From what I garnered from my discussions, I think Roberts has captured a sentiment that most of us have yet to fully realize, even those of us engaged in this struggle.
Yes, Keystone is a symbolic fight and stopping the pipeline will not fix our climate problem, not by a long shot. But for many people (and the numbers are rising), climate change represents one of humanity’s defining challenges, on par with the abolition of slavery, universal human rights and defeating fascism during the Second World War. It is the sine qua non issue of the 21st Century – no matter what else we might do, if we don’t get this one right, we’re in for an extremely rough ride.
This sentiment is becoming widespread in climate activist circles witnessed by, among other things, the Sierra Club’s recent decision to advocate and engage in civil disobedience for the first time in the organization’s 120-year history. The route of international negotiations and treaties has led us no closer to arresting climate change so many are now rightfully asking: If not now, when? If this is not the issue to get us out of our chairs and into the streets to fight, then what is? New pipelines represent a tangible symbol of our continuing addition to fossil fuels, locking us in to many more years of oil consumption at a time when even theInternational Energy Agency is telling the world that most of the world's fossil fuels need to remain just where they are: in the ground.
Canada’s federal government is notorious for its intransigence and lack of interest in the climate change file. In the wake of the ongoing Idle No More movement and massive opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, one wonders what climate activists in this country might be planning next. After all, Stephen Harper’s government appears hell bent on getting tar sands crude out of Alberta to international markets. If not Keystone, if not Gateway, Harper is determined to find some other way and other plans are surely in the works.
Following the protest, I had some time to visit the National Museum of African American History at the Smithsonian Institute where I came upon a quotation by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Whatever you may think of the campaign to stop Keystone XL, it would appear that climate change activists around the world are beginning to wake up to the cold reality of Douglass’ words. We may well look back upon last weekend’s protest as only the beginning of a long, bitter and increasingly hostile battle.
Until this year, the purpose of the annual Canadian federal budget was to project government revenues, lay out spending priorities and forecast economic conditions for the upcoming year. Reading Budget 2012, announced last week by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, it soon becomes clear that this government has no intention of being encumbered by pedestrian fiscal objectives. The Harper government has instead opted to present what is first and foremost a policy document – one that brazenly asserts the government’s ideological agenda for the coming three years.
If the overriding economic policy goal of this government was not apparent previously, with the release of Budget 2012, there can no longer be any doubt. The Harper gang has dispensed with even the pretense of meeting its basic environmental fiduciary responsibilities in favour of the almost totally unimpeded exploitation of Canadian resources. As Green Party leader Elizabeth May told me this week, the government is effectively telling the Canadian people that they plan “to eviscerate existing laws. This isn’t really a fiscal statement. They’ve used the budget as an instrument of massive overhaul of environmental law and policy and the overriding directive is oil and gas at all costs – the environment be damned.”
Should you happen to belong to the unlucky (and clearly misguided) lot with the audacity to be concerned about the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, this is not a budget for you. In fact, perhaps the best we can say about Budget 2012 is, as Rafe Mair put it, at least “we now have it in writing what the bastards are up to!”
Just how bad is it? Well, don’t take my word for it. Last week on CBC, the respected columnist Chantale Hebert of the Toronto Star, hardly an eco-zealot, said this was the most anti-environment budget she had seen in her 20 years covering Parliament Hill. Even the very moderate, if not conservative, editorial board of the Globe and Mail singled out the environmental provisions in the Budget saying “The Conservatives are continuing their dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups, in a budget item that stands out for adding a needless new cost.”
Steven Guilbeault of the NGO Équiterre said that the budget “seems to have been written for, and even by, big oil interests…the Harper government is gutting the environmental protections that Canadians have depended on for decades to safeguard our families and nature from pollution, toxic contamination and other environmental problems.” And true to form, reaction from oil and gas companies, mining and pipeline companies has been predictably jubilant.
There is no new funding for climate change programs. In fact the words climate change are mentioned only twice in passing in the entire 498 page budget plan. The Conservatives will eliminate the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which was a panel of business and environmental leaders who made policy recommendations on a variety of sustainability issues. A widely respected, non-partisan agency, the Roundtable was founded by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1988. Its reports of late, however, had annoyed the government as they were mildly critical of their plans to achieve its stated objective of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The result? The Harper government has killed them.
Environment Canada’s budget is being cut again, this time by 6%, along with grants for scientific research in universities.The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (or CEAA) is in line for a 40 per cent cut. Touting a ‘one project, one review’ principle, CEAA will be overhauled with federal responsibilities being downloaded on provinces; newly imposed timelines, and a limiting of the scope of reviews. Joint panel environmental reviews are to be limited to 24 months, National Energy Board hearings to 18 months and standard environmental assessments to one year. All this will be imposed retroactively, thereby impacting reviews, such as Northern Gateway, that are currently underway. The changes could jeopardize the capacity of people to participate in reviews and it further undermines the ultimate goal of reviews in ensuring environmental protection is a priority in all projects.
The budget does not renew funding for the popular EcoENERGY energy efficiency program. Minimal tax support will be given to ‘clean energy’ and energy efficiency, but only to the tune of $2 million - a tiny drop in the bucket in a multi-billion dollar budget.
Finally, some changes are planned for subsidies to the oil and gas industry on Canada’s East coast but tar sands subsidies remain untouched. Currently, $1.38 billion a year is allocated to energy development through subsidies.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Budget plan, the government is also widely suspected to be planning to gut key conservation provisions of Canada’s Fisheries Act, the nation's most significant and oldest piece of environmental legislation. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network has also learned that that the Harper Conservatives are changing Canada’s mining regulations so that prospecting companies could soon have free-reign on reserve lands.
So what to make of all this? If the stakes weren’t so high, we may otherwise see this Budget as an unfortunate aberration, a government that clearly has an axe to grind or some kind of vendetta against environmental groups. Yet it’s important to appreciate the significance of what the Harper gang is trying to accomplish: namely, to clear the way for resource development projects that will not easily be undone. The environmental legacy of this government will be felt for a long time to come if they are permitted to implement their agenda unimpeded.
A prestigious conference was held last week, at which some of the world’s leading scientists and academics called for the official designation of a new earth epoch: the Anthropocene. Addressing the ‘Planet under Pressure’ gathering in London, England, scientists said that one species has left an indelible mark through climate change, dwindling fish stocks, continued deforestation, rapid species decline, and human population growth. Anthony Giddens, the British political scientist known for his holistic view of societies, described the Anthopocene as a “runaway world” in which we have unleashed processes more powerful than our attempts to control them.
It is against this dismal backdrop that our federal politicians have unleashed the anti-environmental provisions of Budget 2012 upon the Canadian people. I've recently been seeing a bumper sticker that captures quite nicely the priorities of our current federal government: “At least the war on the environment is going well.”
With all the recent controversies and media attention surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines, you would not be remiss in thinking that these are the only projects currently being considered to get tar sands crude to foreign markets. But you would be wrong.
It seems the Canadian government is quite serious about plans to triple production of tar sands bitumen and would not be satisfied even if they were somehow able to bulldoze public opposition to Keystone and Gateway. Although the project has not been officially confirmed, plans are in the works to pump bitumen from northern Alberta through Montreal to the Atlantic coast city of Portland, Maine, where tankers would then transport about 200,000 barrels a day of the heavy crude to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and foreign markets.
This so-called Trailbreaker project would appear to present fewer regulatory obstacles, as it would not require construction of a new pipeline. Instead, the flow of the existing Portland-Montreal pipeline, which currently brings oil from Africa and the Middle East into eastern Canada, would simply be reversed.
According to the Portland Daily Sun, David Cyr, treasurer of the Portland Montreal Pipeline Company, is on the record recently as saying, "We do not have an active project…in terms of bringing western Canadian crude here." While it may well be true that there is no “active” project, Cyr’s comments hardly amount to a rigorous denial and they fly in the face of active rumours I have been hearing out of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
Indeed, as recently as last summer Mr. Cyr was quoted in The Globe and Mail as saying, “We’re still very much interested in reversing the flow of one of our two pipelines to move western Canadian crude to the eastern seaboard. We’re having discussions with Enbridge on their Line 9 and what it means to us.” Moreover, other insider industry sources have previously confirmed that discussions are underway to expand the Enbridge proposal to carry tar sands bitumen to the Atlantic.
Enbridge, the company behind both Trailbreaker and Northern Gateway, has already requested fast-track approval from the National Energy Board of their $16.9 million plan to reverse the flow of tar sands crude from western Canada to Montreal. Yet according to Dylan Voorhees, Clean Energy Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, this is merely phase one of a plan that would then be followed by a reversal of the Portland Montreal Pipeline. The NRC believes that by splitting the project into pieces, Enbridge is attempting to bypass full regulatory and public scrutiny.
Enbridge had secured permission in 2010 from the Quebec Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Land to build a pumping station near the town of Dunham, Quebec. Just last month, however, the environmental group Equiterre and a citizen from Dunham won a Quebec Court ruling by arguing successfully that the issues surrounding the pumping station were not fully aired at the commission. This ruling would appear to stall, for the time being, an attempt to ship oil from Montreal to Portland.
The NRC recently joined three other environmental groups in Portland to educate the public on the dangers of transporting tar sands bitumen. “The larger context is that there's a large effort of getting tar sands crude oil out of Canada,” said Voorhees. “It doesn't seem prudent on us to wait until there's an application to start learning about this because it's very clearly on the radar."
On his first day in office, Mayor Ford fulfilled a campaign promise by announcing his intention to cancel the Transit City project, a plan proposed by former Mayor David Miller and the Toronto Transit Commission in 2007 that focused on improving service to the city’s woefully underserved suburbs. Among other initiatives, Transit City called for the construction of new rapid light rail lines connecting seven areas of the city, as well as new rapid bus transit lines. Upon cancelling the project in December 2010, Mayor Ford announced that the “war on the car” was over. Claiming that light rail transit (LRT) on roadways is a bad idea, he instead proposed an expansion of the existing Toronto subway system, a plan that would serve fewer residents at a much higher cost.
So just what is this transit dust-up all about and why should anyone outside of Toronto even care?
Well, for starters Toronto’s squabbles are emblematic of the transit challenges facing other Canadian cities, such as Vancouver and Calgary, whose populations are growing at rapid rates. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is expected to grow by more than one million residents during the next 10 years. These people will need to get to get around somehow. Yet a recent study found that Torontonians suffer the second worst traffic-related stress of 20 international cities. Toronto's roads and highways are the most congested in North America and, at 80 minutes, their drivers endure the longest average commute times. As anyone who drives Vancouver’s roads will attest, drivers there do not fare much better. The average commute is now 67 minutes and the situation is getting worse as more and more residents seek cheaper housing prices farther from the city centre.
What is particularly interesting about the Toronto transit squabble is how Mayor Ford has managed, inadvertently, to galvanize the many groups lobbying for better transit in the GTA. By opting for a “my way or the highway” approach to transit, he brazenly picked a fight that he might well lose. Although Transit City certainly had its shortcomings, Ford’s subway plan just doesn’t make sense on so many levels.
For starters, subway lines cost, on average, 3 to 6 times more than LRT lines. Ford’s plan to build an eight-kilometer stretch of subway is estimated to cost around $400-million per kilometer (including new stations). In contrast, building LRT along the same stretch would cost about $90-million per kilometer. And instead of at least 3 new LRT lines, Toronto residents would see one, shorter subway line that would still leave much of the city’s suburban areas underserved. So for these unlucky folks, Ford planned to provide more buses (at a higher cost and lower reliability that LRT). $1.3 billion was committed to Transit City and $137 million of that amount has already been spent. Construction is already underway on one LRT line and there are expected to be millions of dollars in cancellation fees for the various contracts already tendered. All this from a mayor who ostensibly purports to be a deficit slayer.
Ford’s plan just seemed like “an obviously wrong decision to many people,” Joe Drew of Save Transit City and CodeRedTO.com told me. “When you see a plan that was going to expand rapid transit to a significant part of the community be killed for capricious reasons, it becomes important to many people to fix this.” And fix it they are, much to Mayor Ford’s chagrin. Many groups including TTC Riders, the Toronto Environmental Alliance and others have rallied around the campaign to save Transit City or, at the very least, to oppose Ford’s plan to kill it and replace it with a nonsensical new subway line.
“Even for those city councilors who don’t care about transit, they do care about taxpayers money,” says Drew. That's why Toronto's previous city council chose LRT as the foundation of its plan — because hands down it provides the best value for money.
As for the legitimate concerns about Transit City’s impacts on traffic, Drew says his organization is not calling for a full reinstatement of the original plan as it was. “What we are saying is that Ford’s plan is even worse so maybe we can build a plan that is better than both current options. There is room for compromise and consensus on this. It is not a matter of one plan or the other.”
Now that Mayor Ford has been humbled by his recent budget defeat, perhaps he will be more willing to listen to his detractors. After all, Ford can’t spend the city’s money without the approval of city council. Drew says this is all likely to come to a head over the next month or so when a request for further funding for Ford’s subway proposal comes to council. Buoyed by their budget victory, many councilors are likely to be even more skeptical of the mayor’s proposal.
As for other cities watching this debacle from the sidelines, we can all thank Toronto for providing us with a textbook lesson in how not to deal with transit planning in Canada’s growing urban centres.
Canada has long been considered a climate change pariah by the international community. We were the only signatory to the Kyoto Protocol to simply ignore its responsibilities following ratification and our country’s total emissions are now more than 34 per cent above our Kyoto targets. Not only did the previous Liberal government fail to do anything to meet its Kyoto obligations, in recent years the government of Stephen Harper has gone a step further, becoming increasingly obdurate in its efforts to deliberately obstruct the progress of international climate talks.
Why the antipathy of the Harper government toward limits to carbon emissions? Well, as you might expect, the tar sands are one factor. Tar sands reserves are now valued at a stunning $14 trillion and oil companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in exploiting the resource, money that could boost federal tax revenues considerably.
This is only part of the story however. Harper has long maintained his government does not support Kyoto because it does not include all of the world’s major emitters such as the United States, China and India. Their oft-repeated refrain is that Canada is a small player, contributing only 2 per cent to global emissions and, as Harper once stated, if emissions from emerging economies are not controlled, “whatever we do in the developed world will have no impact on climate change.”
Besides the fact that we are only in the first Kyoto commitment period and that subsequent phases were intended to include all major emitters, what are we to make of Canada’s Environment-minister-turned-big-oil-lobbyist, Peter Kent, saying on Monday that Canada will not renew its commitment to Kyoto, even if doing so would mean China would agree to firm targets to cut its own greenhouse gases? Worse, speculation is that sometime before Christmas when the House of Commons is not in session and the public is paying little attention, the government will announce Canada’s complete withdrawal from Kyoto. In Durban, Canada is rumoured to be encouraging other countries to follow its lead in rejecting Kyoto.
Although it is technically permitted under Kyoto’s terms, withdrawal from a legally binding, multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) is almost unheard of and it is not entirely clear at this stage what the ramifications of such a move might be for future MEAs. Withdrawal may mean that Canada successfully evades responsibility for the commitments that it undertook in Kyoto but why would any nation believe that Canada will deliver on any commitments we make in the future? And what is to stop other countries withdrawing from other conventions that are no longer to their liking?
This is not to say that Kyoto is without its flaws. But it was a tentative first step by the international community to try to wrestle with a climate change problem that requires concerted international action and is quickly spiraling out of control. Any future treaty would certainly require improvements but Canada is effectively - and almost single-handedly - killing any chance of negotiating a successor to Kyoto before 2020.
So after Durban we are left with nothing but the hastily negotiated and non-binding Copenhagen Accord of 2009, an agreement that our government claims still to support. This agreement calls for the increase in average global temperatures to be limited to two degrees Celsius (2 C) above pre-industrial levels, as many scientists believe that beyond this point, we may cross a climate threshold into potentially catastrophic and unmanageable runaway warming. Yet for several reasons, Copenhagen is also doomed to fail.
First, voluntary commitments by the countries that have so far signed the agreement would leave the world heading for warming of over 3 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Second, many feel that the 2 C target is itself simply too high. An average global increase of 2 C means some regions in the developing south — much of Africa, for instance — will be subject to a 3.5 C or even 4 C increase. This, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has said, “is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”
Finally, when you crunch the numbers, it becomes clear that accepting the 2 degree limit globally would mean a dramatic reduction in global emissions in the short term. Yet by 2020, tar sands emissions are expected to triple from their 2005 levels. It would be very difficult for Canada to reconcile any expanding tar sands production with such sharp global declines in carbon emissions. With the economies of China and India expanding at a rapid rate, there simply is not enough atmospheric space available for a tar sands industry that already accounts for a whopping 6.5% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Industrialized countries have already emitted roughly 75 per cent of total historical greenhouse gas emissions. By asking poorer countries to bind themselves to diminishing emissions budgets before we have even attempted to meet our own targets, Canada is contributing to perhaps the single biggest impediment to progress in international climate negotiations. For developing countries, acquiescing to such a demand would be “like jumping out of a plane and being assured that you are going to get a parachute on the way down,” as the former Executive Secretary of the UN climate negotiations, Yvo De Boer, said. Why would China and India ever agree to such a deal?
Very few would deny the fact that developing countries will have to rein in their carbon emissions if we are to have any chance of solving the climate crisis but if countries like Canada are unwilling to make deep cuts quickly, it’s very difficult for poor countries to see how they can reconcile their development aspirations with the atmospheric limits of climate stabilization at 2 C of warming. Today, the only proven routes out of poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and, consequently, a seemingly inevitable increase in fossil fuel use and carbon emissions — unless more expensive alternative energies can rapidly be deployed.
So here we find ourselves at what may be an insurmountable political impasse created by sheer self-interest and apparent egotism. “Western nations are engaged in a lose-lose game of chicken with developing nations,” wrote Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone following the Cophenhagen Summit. And in the meantime, the climate will not wait for us to get our act together. As emissions rise, the climate will continue to change.
If even a 2-degree target is out of reach, where does this leave us? The answer is not pretty. In a recently published, must-read article called Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world, Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, explains why a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees would be extremely dangerous. In fact, he says “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.” According to the International Energy Agency, we’re currently on course for a 6 degrees C temperature rise.
Viewed in these stark terms, I cannot help but wonder if future generations will one day judge the actions of our political “leaders” such as Harper and Kent - who in the face of all the scientific evidence, continued to value increasing tar sands production in Canada over climatic stability - as crimes against humanity.
Editor's Note: We are pleased to welcome Ottawa-based environmental journalist and educator Mark Brooks to our team of Common Sense contributors. A former analyst for the Government of Canada and an author whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen, Mark brings a national perspective to The Common Sense Canadian.
Strolling around Washington, D.C. last weekend, I came upon an impressive memorial to the famous wartime president Franklin Roosevelt. Upon the gray granite walls were inscribed many of FDR’s most memorable quotations. "Men and nature must work hand in hand,” he wrote in a 1935 message to Congress. “The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men."
Having traveled to the U.S. capital to cover the latest protest of the Keystone XL project, I wondered what FDR might say about TransCanada’s controversial pipeline proposal. A pipeline that would transport tar sands crude from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, Keystone has been described as a 2700 km “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” in the words of author and activist Bill McKibben. Protest organizers had hoped to encircle the White House with at least 4000 people in what McKibben called both an “O-shaped hug” and “house arrest.” Instead, at least 10,000 protesters showed up, young and old, from all over North America, ringing President Obama’s residence three-deep.
This action was the latest in a growing campaign to try to choke off supply routes to the tar sands. The company behind the pipeline, TransCanada, responded in an entirely predictable manner, betraying an almost total lack of understanding of some very legitimate concerns. “What these millionaire actors and professional activists don't seem to understand is that saying no to Keystone means saying yes to more conflict oil from the Middle East and Venezuela filling American gas tanks," TransCanada spokesman James Millar said. "After the Washington protesters fly back home, they will forget about the millions of Americans who can't find work."
Only a few months ago, approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline was considered a fait accompli by many of the project’s supporters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the approval a “no brainer” and TransCanada was so sure it would get the go-ahead from U.S. regulators, they had already bought the pipe and was stockpiling it in North Dakota. The company claims to have already spent $1.9 billion to secure land and equipment for the project and it fully expected to begin construction early in 2012. This has all changed dramatically now that President Obama has ordered the U.S. State Department to conduct a thorough re-review of the project, effectively delaying approval of Keystone until after next year’s U.S. elections.
While another version of Keystone XL may yet be approved, the delay represents a substantial victory for those groups opposing the pipeline. It is also another significant setback for the beleaguered tar sands industry coming as it does on the heels of a European Commission move to classify oil from the tar sands as carbon intensive and highly polluting.
Truth be told, Keystone approval has been plagued by problems for some time now. The U.S. State Department came under heavy criticism this summer for releasing a hasty environmental assessment that found the project would pose no significant environmental risks. It was later revealed that the Department not only allowed TransCanada to select the contractor that conducted the review, the company chosen, Cardno Entrix, turned out to have business ties with TransCanada and would likely stand to benefit from the project’s approval. Environmental groups also released emails that showed a friendly relationship between officials at State and representatives of TransCanada.
The Nebraska legislature then began considering legislation that would have forced TransCanada to reroute the pipeline away from the Ogallala aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the region. Comments by President Barack Obama further fuelled speculation that the writing was on the wall when he took personal responsibility for approval of the pipeline and said that “folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren't going to say to themselves, 'we'll take a few thousand jobs' if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health or if ... rich land that is so important to agriculture in Nebraska ends up being adversely affected."
The decision to delay was nonetheless remarkable given the current dismal economic climate in the U.S. and the well-financed campaigns being waged by TransCanada and the governments of Canada and Alberta promising jobs and economic growth should Keystone be approved. In the end, a hodge-podge collection of environmental and labour groups, Nebraskan residents, a few politicians and a handful of U.S. celebrities have managed to, temporarily at least, derail the $7 billion project. As Naomi Klein tweeted after the decision was announced, when the campaign against Keystone XL began, “most Americans hadn’t heard of the tar sands, let alone Keystone. This is what 3 months of amazing campaigning can do.”
The governments of Canada and Alberta both expressed disappointment with the decision but remain optimistic that the project will eventually be given the green light. But rather than addressing the very legitimate concerns of the many disparate groups who have come together to oppose Keystone XL, Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said recently that “if they don’t want our oil...it is obvious we are going to export it elsewhere.” TransCanada immediately warned that the delay could kill the pipeline but vowed to work with the State Department to find a new route. The company’s Chief Executive Russ Girling has suggested a legal battle could ensue if the pipeline is delayed.
What backers of the pipeline have not yet been able to fully grasp is that, for the growing movement opposing the project, this campaign goes far beyond Keystone. At its core, this is a struggle over the kind of energy future we want to build for ourselves. When I spoke with Naomi Klein in Washington, she put it this way. “This is not just about Keystone, it’s about all the pipelines. Whether it’s in Nebraska or British Columbia, whether we’re talking about Northern Gateway or Kinder Morgan, people have made it clear they’re willing to take actions in line with the urgency of this crisis. Even if they approve this pipeline or any other, they have to know there will be people in front of every bulldozer.” Sure enough, in the hours following the State Department decision, the Twitter-verse was buzzing with individuals committing to take non-violent action should the Keystone project ever be approved.
Also speaking in D.C., NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, captured what many in the crowd and a growing number around the world are coming to realize, that we are at a critical juncture. “There is a limit to how much carbon we can pour into the atmosphere. Tar sands are the turning point in our fossil fuel addiction. Either we begin on the road to breaking our addiction or we turn to even dirtier fossil fuels.” If Keystone XL or the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the west coast of B.C. is built, it will ensure increased tar sands production and a commensurate rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
For climate justice activists, labour groups and citizens assembled in Washington, this scenario is no longer acceptable. The decision to delay Keystone XL is no doubt reason for optimism, but it likely represents only the beginning for a movement that now appears to be at last finding its stride. What these folks are demanding is not simply that the tar sands pipelines be re-routed to safer terrain or that adequate measures are put in place to prevent oil spills, they want a long-term plan to gradually wean ourselves off fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future that could create millions of green jobs, something the governments of Canada and the U.S. have thus far refused to consider. Until they do, it will mean that “the arteries that are carrying this dirty oil all over the world” must be blocked, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians told me. “If we can stop Keystone, we can stop Enbridge going west. It’s the beginning of a real movement with Americans and people around the world to say this is the wrong model.”
Mark Brooks' Video of Naomi Klein speaking in Washington, D.C. on November 5