BREAKING: Obama rejects Keystone XL Pipeline

Polluting companies like TransCanada have long insisted that their tar sands projects are inevitable.In the end, North America’s most famous dirty energy project – the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline – died with a whimper. At a press conference just hours ago, President Obama rejected a plan to build the mega-structure, saying that the pipeline “would not serve the national interests of the United States.”

The fight over Keystone XL encompassed a dizzying array of issues – ecosystem collapse, climate change, Big Oil vs. citizen organizations, private property rights, international diplomacy, and much more – that combined to create one of the most visible environmental campaigns in recent memory.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the story, here’s a brief recap. The Keystone XL pipeline (or “KXL”) was first proposed in 2008 by a company called TransCanada, which wanted to use it to deliver crude oil from northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf coast, 2,000 miles away. This long trip would cut through the grain belt of the United States, across important rivers, aquifers, and critical habitat for wildlife like sandhill cranes.

The type of oil it would transport is a key point, too: KXL would carry “Tar sands” oil, or “bitumen,” a sludgy, gritty substance that is mined with heavy equipment from beneath the boreal forests of central Canada. Not only do these mines destroy thousands of acres of habitat, but tar sands oil is particularly toxic, and turning it from sludge into gasoline produces a great deal more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. Building KXL would allow the oil companies to send more of this sludge out of Canada, allowing them to significantly ramp up their operations. Bigger pipelines =  more tar sands mining = more greenhouse gas emissions, and more damage to the forest and the planet.

All of this, for little return. Obama emphasized today that “shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security,” nor would it lower Americans’ gas prices or “make a meaningful long-term impact to our economy.” The White House has been trying to position the United States as a leader on international climate change policy, and as Obama said, “Frankly, approving this project would have undercut this global leadership.”

Polluting companies like TransCanada have long insisted that their tar sands projects are inevitable, that we might as well grit our teeth and watch the oil flow, but this spin is unravelling as changing economic conditions are forcing the tar sands industry to shelve plans for expansion. With new leadership in Canada, the political equation has changed as well, giving us new hope for a cleaner energy future.

On a personal level, I am deeply gratified to see this battle come to a close. I used to help coordinate National Wildlife Federation’s effort to block the pipeline, and saw firsthand the transformation of the story from a background note to the front page. That high profile was a surprise to the oil industry, which has never paid much attention to public perception, and found itself in the middle of a firestorm. Pipeline spills like the 2010 Enbridge disaster in Michigan and the 2012 Exxon rupture in Montana’s Yellowstone River helped to focus attention on the danger of our country’s oil infrastructure and proved, yet again, that this isn’t the sort of industry that learns from its mistakes.

If Keystone XL had been built, it would only be a matter of time before another spill happened, with possibly catastrophic consequences for the people and wildlife that live along its route.

KXL isn’t the only tar sands pipeline out there that needs to be stopped. Exxon (currently under fire for a decades-long junk climate science scam) is trying to bully its way toward approval of a pipeline in eastern Canada and New England, Enbridge is doing likewise with its “Northern Gateway” project, and the Chinese company CNOOC Ltd. is still dealing with a massive spill from its brand-new Nexen pipeline, which leaked, undetected, for two weeks earlier this summer. But today’s victory is a big one, and sets the tone for the conversation in the years to come.

For too long, the status quo has favored irresponsible development of fossil fuels. Now, with Keystone XL’s defeat, we know that project like this aren’t inevitable after all. It took the hard work of millions of Canadian and United States citizens, and of dozens of environmental and social justice organizations, to pound the last nail into KXL’s coffin—but what a great feeling it is to set the hammer down after the day’s job is done.

--PL

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