Obama Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline: Why? And What Does It Mean for the Endangered Planet?

by Orpheus Reed | November 9, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


On November 6, President Obama announced the U.S. would not approve building of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Keystone XL would have brought oil from Canada’s Alberta tar sands region into the U.S. to be refined.

This decision means the shipping via the pipeline of 830,000 more barrels per day of especially dirty, carbon polluting tar sands oil will not happen. It means a possible delay in the further devastation of the environment in the tar sands region that the pipeline’s building would have worsened. Environmental groups, Native peoples, and others have fought very hard to stop this pipeline. This struggle was one important factor in stopping the pipeline. But there are larger and more overriding reasons Obama came to this decision that have to do with how he, as a top representative of the capitalist-imperialist rulers, sees best preserving U.S. power in the face of a growing environmental maelstrom. And the fight over the tar sands and over saving the planet is far from over.

Obama’s Arguments

Obama said he was rejecting the pipeline because it “would not serve the national interest of the U.S.” He cited three factors in his decision—that the pipeline “would not make a meaningful long-term contribution to our economy” and “would not lower gas prices for American consumers” and that “shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security.” He also attempted to frame the decision with a claim that the U.S. is “leading on climate change,” saying “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

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In Obama’s view, not approving the pipeline was a move to strengthen the international position the U.S has staked out leading up to the UN climate talks in Paris. He and those sections of the ruling class who support him think that given the huge changes the climate crisis will bring globally, for the U.S. to remain as the top power, it must be able to dictate the terms of international climate negotiations. And to do this, the U.S. must portray itself as the “world leader” in combatting climate change. Obama said approving the pipeline “would have undercut this leadership.”

Obama’s arguments all are based on what he and the U.S. rulers view as best for America’s national interests and global position as a world power. He claims that defending these interests and combatting climate change are compatible. But the truth is that proceeding from the national and global interests of the U.S. is completely antagonistic to protecting the world’s environment and the world’s people—especially the poorest people on the planet.

It’s essential that everyone who wants to see climate change seriously combatted and the planet saved, who wants humanity to be saved and liberated, get clear on the interests involved here.

Struggle over Keystone XL

For years the Keystone XL pipeline was considered a done deal. In 2012 Obama himself green-lighted the building of the southern portion of Keystone XL from Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico coast and bragged at the time about how many pipelines had been approved by his administration. The State Department reviewed the Keystone XL project and cynically claimed it wouldn’t cause more carbon pollution leading to further climate change. This review argued that in a market economy, people had to accept that the oil would be transported—if not by pipeline then by rail or other means. At different points, Obama seemed poised to approve the pipeline. But a number of different factors have transformed the situation.

Over the last seven years a significant and widespread struggle was built against this pipeline, to the point it became a rallying cry and key battlefront in the larger battle against climate change and to save the planet. Without this, it is likely this pipeline would have gone through. Environmental groups like 350.org called protests of tens of thousands in Washington, D.C. and around the country, including civil disobedience by a thousand people at the White House. As the southern portion of Keystone XL was built, Tar Sands Action blockaded pipeline construction, for which activists faced brutal repression and arrests. Tens of thousands of people pledged they would engage in civil disobedience if the pipeline was approved. Landowners and Native people from Nebraska and elsewhere united and descended on Washington to protest and challenged the pipeline route in the courts. Climatologist James Hansen warned that fully developing the tar sands oil reserves would mean “game over” for the planet, and other scientists sounded the alarm.

Over the past several years especially, the climate crisis, driven by the very workings of capitalism and its whole fossil fuel energy foundation, violently thrust itself before the world in a way that was impossible to ignore. One “warmest year in recorded history” following another... killing heat waves and wildfires sweeping swaths of the planet... collapsing ice sheets in the Antarctic and ramped-up melting of Greenland and the Arctic... storms of the century happening every few years... vast disturbances and threats to whole ecosystems, and more. Scientific study after study, report after report warning the world of catastrophe, the danger of massive migrations of people and increased warfare, the prospects of society breaking down.


All this and more has shaken the whole world, alarming people worldwide and battering the legitimacy of the system of capitalism-imperialism around the world. Imperialists and other powers are scrambling to figure out how they will deal with the immense disruptions to come. In this situation, the Keystone pipeline became a key test of the legitimacy of the economic and political system in the U.S. in relation to dealing with the climate emergency.

At the same time, the U.S. has rapidly increased its domestic oil and natural gas production in recent years. And with the price of oil dropping significantly, the production of tar sands oil has become much less profitable, for now at least. These developments have been major factors in the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline as well as putting on hold other tar sands projects and some off-shore oil drilling projects.

Climate Change and Strategic Moves of U.S. Imperialists

A growing consensus has been developing among powerful sections of the capitalist-imperialist ruling class forces grouped loosely around Obama, including in the U.S. military, that the U.S. had no choice but to alter its course on approaching climate change. For more than 20 years the U.S. was the key force in preventing international action on climate change, even though the science was clear. This inaction—and even active sabotage of international climate agreements that would limit emissions, including Obama’s own role in enforcing a do-nothing agreement in Copenhagen in 2010—is a fundamental reason the world is now on the brink of a climate abyss. But now, with the swift and violent transitions occurring that clearly are accelerating, these forces have decided it is vital to U.S. power in the world that the U.S. transition itself to be seen as the world’s leader on combatting climate change.

But this is not about actually combatting climate change as an urgent emergency with the aim of saving the planet and humanity. This is about how to maintain and extend the U.S. empire given the reality of immense worldwide disruptions from the climate emergency. And they are trying to do this by cramming this out-of-control crisis into the bounds of U.S. economic and political interests.

This is concentrated in Obama’s “clean power plan,” which promises the U.S. will cut emissions 27 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 32 percent by 2030. These cuts are completely consistent with transitions the U.S. is making anyway from coal to natural gas and making things somewhat more energy efficient. But they are puny and completely insufficient compared to the level of cuts that are demanded based on the actual science of the climate emergency. Scientists have said cuts by the big powers on the level of perhaps 60 percent per decade are required to keep the crisis from leaping further out of control.

Obama’s proposals are also founded on phony calculations that cover over the real amount of emissions the U.S. is responsible for. Official U.S. emissions don’t include U.S. offloading of carbon emissions to other countries by having them produce goods for the U.S market. They don’t include emissions caused by the U.S. military—the largest single institutional consumer of oil on the planet—which are completely “off the books.”

The climate crisis cannot be “managed”—it has to be tackled head on, with radical and more or less immediate transitions to clean energy, with emergency measures to transform the basis of the economy and the way agriculture is carried out, with the stopping of the destruction of forests worldwide, with worldwide cooperation to stop the destruction of ecosystems. Instead, Obama and the U.S. rulers are creating a mirage of the U.S. “leading” on tackling climate change, while  the U.S. has long been leading on causing climate change, as the leading producer of greenhouse gases in world history and leading destroyer of world ecosystems.

The U.S. imperialists are actually using the climate crisis as another means of competition and rivalry over which power will “win out” in the new era of environmental devastation planet-wide. They are acting to save the very system that is responsible for the devastation we face. This reactionary rivalry is heating up heading into the UN climate talks in Paris this December, which the U.S. intends to use to strengthen its global position. This is a big reason Obama vetoed Keystone XL and also cancelled the upcoming lease sales for Arctic oil drilling.

The lesson from the Obama decision on Keystone XL is not that this system’s politicians can be pressured to “do the right thing” to save the planet. When looking at the whole picture, what is revealed is that the rulers of this system can only respond to any emergency, any crisis, from their own capitalist-imperialist interests—from “the national interests of the United States” as Obama says. And these interests are completely opposed to both saving the planet and liberating the planet’s people, whom this system has locked in a death grip of war, poverty, police terror, mass incarceration, vicious women’s oppression, and more.

Resistance is critical to fighting this, to forcing this system to jump back. And we need more of this now. But only linking this to revolution, and making actual revolution—to bring into being a whole different socialist system moving to communism—holds the real chance to combat the climate and environmental emergency, and save our planet, and to emancipate humanity.

See “State of EMERGENCY! The Plunder of Our Planet, The Environmental Catastrophe & The Real Revolutionary Solution”



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