Keystone XL Pipeline: Powerful Interests and Big Stakes

September 15, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


From Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, a film of a talk by Bob Avakian (2003): "Not fit caretakers of the earth"

The struggle over building the Keystone XL pipeline is sharpening and the stakes are high. A decision by President Barack Obama on the pipeline is now expected late this fall or winter, after a final State Department review.

Keystone XL would increase the flow of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in the U.S. by 830,000 barrels a day. According to a report by Oil Change International, this would result in the equivalent of an additional 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere each year. That's the amount produced by 37 million cars or 51 coal-fired power plants.

The planet stands at the precipice of a climate catastrophe. The polar ice caps are melting with increasing speed; extreme weather is hitting harder and more frequently; the oceans' chemistry itself is being turned more acidic threatening life; and ecosystems are being compromised and even destroyed. A climate emergency is upon us and picking up steam. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have built to atmospheric levels never seen in human history, warming the planet.

Think about it. The world faces a climate emergency because this system's economic way of life is completely dependent on burning fossil fuels. Tar sands oil is even more environmentally destructive and more carbon polluting than conventional oil.

And yet at this very moment, the ruling powers of Canada and the U.S. are stepping up their grab to use even more of this dangerous stuff!

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The Alberta tar sands represent a huge pool of oil reserves and a huge pool of capital investment for many of the world's largest oil companies and the entire economies of Canada and the U.S.

The tar sands project is the world's largest energy and capital investment project. The oil reserves there are the third largest in the world. Canada has already surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest exporter of oil to the U.S., most of this is oil from the tar sands. And the U.S. itself in 2012 posted the largest oil production increase in the world and in its history, and is thirsting to become the world's largest oil producer by 2020.

The expansion of oil production in Canada and the U.S. is an immense source of profitability and of central importance to the global economic position of both countries. And perhaps even more important to the ruling classes of the U.S. and Canada, expansion of oil production "at home" is seen as a way to guarantee "energy independence and security" in an increasingly volatile world. Control over vast reserves of fossil fuels, and especially oil, is fundamental and foundational to control and domination of the whole world. One key part of this is guaranteeing the functioning of the U.S. military, which is the world's largest institutional consumer of oil. The U.S. military is the most carbon-polluting, people- and ecosystem-destroying force in world history.

The expansion of oil and gas production in Canada and the U.S. is occurring by ravaging the earth for dirtier and harder-to-extract fuels. They are fracking for natural gas and shale oil, mining and steaming out gooey, filthy tar sands deposits using huge amounts of water. This gooey junk must be mixed with other toxic chemicals to even keep it in liquid form. In Alberta, huge tracts of boreal forest that are key habitat for many living things and also a vast reservoir for sucking up carbon dioxide from the air are being leveled. Toxic waste ponds are spreading and bodies of water poisoned. Indigenous people who've lived in these lands for thousands of years are being killed by cancers at increasing rates, their very lives being genocidally torn apart.

What's at Stake in Keystone XL and the Tar Sands

Yet none of these miseries defines the decisions of those in charge. Instead, their main concern is how to leap forward to increase tar sands production, get oil to market, and position themselves favorably in relation to less "energy independent" allies and rivals—the environment be damned.

According to a new report from a number of environmental groups, Canada has plans to expand pipeline shipments of tar sands oil from 2.2 million barrels per day to 6.6 million barrels per day by 2030. There are currently plans in the works for five major pipeline systems to be built from the tar sands—three going to Canada's west and east coasts and two into the U.S., including Keystone XL. Tar sands oil is also being shipped by other means—rail and truck, etc., but these methods are less efficient and far more costly than shipping oil by pipeline.

A big problem is developing for them because, in every direction these pipelines are planned, there is growing and significant opposition. Indigenous tribes whose land will be crossed are refusing to cede their territory. There is deep opposition to bringing big oil tankers into the pristine waters along the west coast in British Columbia. Huge sections of people in both the U.S. and Canada are increasingly concerned and angry about the environmental destruction this is part of. There is growing protest, including plans in 100 cities currently for protests to "Draw the Line on Keystone XL" on September 21. Building Keystone XL is seen by industry experts as a key part of being able to start to solve this problem.

In an initial review of Keystone's current route released in March, the U.S. State Department argued Keystone XL would not further carbon pollution, because whether it is built or not, tar sands oil would be extracted and shipped by other means and the U.S. would just go ahead and get oil from other sources if needed. The climate crisis demands that this tar sands oil and other fossil fuels be left in the ground if we're to save planetary ecosystems. But the State Department's logic instead is that "the market decides," along with the geostrategic needs of the U.S. empire, no matter what the cost, even though the truth is that carbon dioxide emissions are literally killing life on this planet. This is a chilling indictment of the logic of this whole system.

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When Obama delivered his climate speech in June, he said he would only approve Keystone XL "if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." One interpretation of Obama's words on Keystone XL is that they are a setup to approve the pipeline by aligning them with the phony claim the State Department has already made: that Keystone XL won't further carbon pollution because the system is going to go ahead with carbon polluting one way or the other.

But leading environmental forces, including Bill McKibben with, as well as others, welcomed Obama's speech. McKibben said afterward that the world needs climate leadership and "Barack Obama showed he might turn out to be the guy who provided it."

As "4 Points for Bill McKibben" by Raymond Lotta put it:

This is as obscene as it is willfully self-deceptive.

You are aware that in 2009, Obama torpedoed any meaningful climate agreement in Copenhagen; that he expanded offshore drilling, including opening up the Arctic; and that he approved the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline (that would haul dirty tar-sands oil). You know that the U.S. posted the largest increase in oil production in the world and in U.S. history in 2012.

Obama's speech announced meaningless plans that will result in cuts in U.S. emissions of only a few percent below 1990 levels when what the climate crisis demands is massive cuts. And the U.S. continues to offload its emissions to other countries—because of the massive shift of production to poor countries. And while Obama made a central point of his speech the fact that some coal-fired plants are converting to natural gas in the U.S., the truth is the U.S. increased its exports of coal to be burned by other countries in 2012 by 50 percent!

The strategy being promoted by many of the leading forces who are opposed to Keystone XL is that the problem is a "rogue fossil fuel" industry and its lobby in Congress. And that Obama can be worked with, and alternatively pushed, to "do the right thing." This is completely wrong. It fails to understand the huge stakes and strategic control embedded in fossil fuels to the functioning of the entire system of capitalism-imperialism. Oil is not a rogue industry. It is part of a larger system that operates according to certain capitalist rules and imperatives. And Obama is the chief representative and commander in chief of this same system that is dominating and destroying the planet.

A lot is at play in the buildup to this decision on Keystone XL and it's not yet determined how all this will play out. But what is needed is not opposition that continues to be chumped every time Obama speaks some honeyed words meant to cover up the real interests involved and fool people to try to maintain belief in a system that is increasingly showing itself as entirely illegitimate—from the destruction of the environment, to mass incarceration of millions, to NSA spying on people worldwide, to its bloody moves now to bomb Syria.

The State Department review, to be concluded in several months, includes a recommendation to Obama on whether Keystone XL is "in the national interest." People who truly want to see the destruction of the environment stopped must break with this viewpoint, stop thinking like Americans and start thinking about humanity and the planet. The "national interests" of the United States are the interests of the ruling class of capitalist-imperialists who are bringing all this destruction and who are completely opposed to the interests of humanity and ecosystems.

What's needed is serious and uncompromising resistance based on confronting the actual truth about the deep interests of the entire system of capitalism-imperialism that are responsible for environmental destruction. We need resistance spread to millions of people, aiming to stop Keystone XL and all other fossil fuel projects and the larger environmental destruction carried out by this system, connected to building for what is really the only fundamental solution—an actual revolution.


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