Keystone XL Pipeline and the Deadly Calculations of Capitalism

January 19, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


On January 9, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline would bring oil from the tar sands region in Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, it would be piped on to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Obama’s State Department has been “studying” the pipeline and a decision by Obama on whether to approve the pipeline may come soon.

The battle over Keystone XL is an important front in the overall battle to stop the destruction of the planet. There is sharp debate within the U.S. ruling class over Keystone XL. The Republicans are pressuring Obama to approve the pipeline now, and Obama has threatened to veto their bill on the grounds that these bills undermine his presidential authority to make this decision. The State Department has already said Keystone XL would not worsen climate change because, they argue, even without the pipeline the logic of the market dictates the oil will be dug out of the ground and shipped somehow—so people should accept this!

This debate doesn’t revolve around the fact that it’s scientifically clear that Keystone XL and expanded tar sands production will further dangerous climate change and have other environmental impacts. Instead, it is being debated on the grounds of whether it’s in the “U.S. national interests”—the economic and and strategic interests of U.S. imperialism.

The planet stands at the precipice of a climate catastrophe. 2014 was the warmest year in Earth’s recorded history. A climate emergency is picking up steam, caused by the relentless burning of oil, coal and gas, deforestation, and other capitalist agricultural practices. The polar ice caps are melting with increasing speed; extreme weather is hitting harder and more frequently; the oceans’ chemistry is being turned more acidic, threatening life; and ecosystems are being compromised and even destroyed. Scientists warn of the compromising of human civilization and mass destruction of species and people, especially in the poorest countries, if things continue as they are. And right at this very point, the U.S. and Canada are drilling and excavating new oil and gas deposits—the very cause of the climate crisis—at record rates!

It’s been established that Keystone XL and the expansion of production of tar sands oil in Alberta, would be a climate disaster.

Oil from the tar sands is far dirtier and carbon polluting even than conventional oil. Tar sands oil is already flowing via other pipelines and means of transport, including the original Keystone pipeline. Keystone XL would shorten the route to the U.S., and increase this flow of tar sands oil 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. Keystone XL is only one of several new pipelines Canada is seeking to build to get tar sands oil to market.

A recent study by scientists published in January in Nature magazine said that to keep global temperatures from rising to calamitous levels, new sources of tar sands oil, as well as vast percentages of all fossil fuels, must be left in the ground. Climatologist James Hansen has said if the tar sands deposits in Canada are fully developed, this will mean “game over for the climate.”

In addition to the devastating damage to the global climate, tar sands pipelines are even more prone to dangerous spills than normal oil pipelines due to the corrosiveness of tar sands oil. These pipelines flow under tremendous pressure, and the oil is so thick it is mixed with other ingredients to keep it flowing. Tar sands oil production in Alberta is a vast environmental disaster in motion in other ways: poisoning indigenous people, their lands and water sources, and mowing down huge swaths of formerly pristine wilderness forest.

The idea that such a project would be approved, that this would even be up for evaluation, deliberation, and debate, that the Obama administration would be “studying the impacts,” that this pipeline is a political football in congressional battles, that the Nebraska courts have upheld the construction of the line through the state... all this is totally obscene and further evidence of how obsolete and irrational this system is, how unfit it is to serve humanity and protect the planet! And the yardstick that is being projected by ruling class forces that the pipeline is good or bad depending on how many jobs it creates is both utter hypocrisy (as if the powers-that-be care that billions of people on this planet cannot find work they need to survive) and an attempt to train people to think in terms of “me,” when the planet is at stake.

So why is this decision, which seems clearly insane, even being debated? This flows from the very logic of capitalism—from the inner drive of the system that compels individual capitals to make profit and more profit in order to beat out competitors, and from rivalry among the major capitalist powers for control over the resources of the planet and influence over key markets and regions of the world. Fossil fuels and oil in particular are foundational to the profitable functioning and global strategic requirements of the capitalist-imperialist system. This system runs on oil in particular. Seven of the 10 largest non-financial corporations in the world are auto or oil companies. The imperialist banking system is heavily invested in fossil fuel production, lending and advising on behalf of energy companies, including in Alberta. The U.S. military, and its wars, are fueled by the enormous guzzling of fossil fuels. The military is the world’s largest institutional consumer of oil.

For all the talk about an “environmental president,” under Obama there has been a huge increase in oil and natural gas production (through fracking) in the last few years. Obama has trumpeted that gas is replacing coal production, slightly lowering U.S. greenhouse emissions, while U.S. coal exports have increased and the economy is even more locked in to fossil fuel production for gas and oil. All this new investment and technology in extracting oil and natural gas and in the expansion of refineries has to be "made good." In other words, oil has to be pumped in ever-greater quantities and sold on the market in order to cover the huge costs of investment and to yield a profit. That's the logic of capitalism—no matter the environmental consequences.

Further, the U.S. is using increased oil production and access to tar sands oil from Canada as a weapon in its global maneuvering. Oil and gas are a weapon, putting pressure on Russia, Venezuela, and Iran—countries which U.S. imperialism regards as obstacles to its global interests and countries whose economies pivot around oil and natural gas production. More U.S. oil and natural gas production and U.S. access to tar sands gives U.S. imperialism more leverage in dealing with those countries—putting downward pressure on prices, enabling the U.S. to impose sanctions, etc. And this gives the U.S. more freedom to maneuver in the Middle East as well. (For more on the drives of capitalism to continue to burn and drill for fossil fuels, see “State of EMERGENCY! The Plunder of Our Planet, the Environmental Catastrophe, and the Real Revolutionary Solution,” Revolution’s special issue on the environment.)

This Republican-Obama debate is not over how to protect the planet now and in the future, no matter what Obama or John Kerry may claim.

Some of the real factors that this debate revolves around are:

  • What kind of face the U.S. puts out to the world—if Obama approves this now with key climate talks coming up in 2015 in Paris, it undermines his portrayal of the U.S. “leading” on climate change and the whole “high ground” position the U.S. wants to occupy and use in competition with China and others.
  • U.S. relations with Canada—Canada is a reliable ally, and if the U.S. says no to the pipeline, it could create problems for Canada’s position.
  • Whether the expansion of tar sands oil production will continue to be a profitable investment for U.S. interests given the decline in oil prices, and including in light of the expansion of oil production in the U.S. itself.
  • Debate and maneuvering linked to other in-fighting between two major sections of the ruling class (loosely speaking, those around Obama vs. the Republicans). And there are powerful segments of capital and the U.S. ruling class that deny the well-established science of climate change.

The terms of this debate and the fact there is a debate over what is so clearly an environmental nightmare, is further demonstration that this capitalist system is not a fit caretaker of the planet.

Many environmental groups have been building important opposition to Keystone XL. It is vital that there be increased resistance now aimed at stopping the Keystone XL and all production of tar sands oil which is so destructive to our environment.

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