"God help us if this becomes like baby seals", said a University of Alberta energy economist after research about the extent of pollution downstream from the Athabasca Tar Sands became public a couple of years ago. Protests decrying the Keystone XL pipeline with its associated tar sands may not have reached "baby seals" fervor, but the plan to pump crude oil from Alberta to Texas certainly hasn't raised the popularity of Alberta and its oil extraction industry.
Baby-Sealing the Pipeline, If Not The Tar Sands
The extended pipeline would route through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies millions of people drinking and agriculture water. Nebraskans are especially apoplectic about the prospect of the pipeline with all its hazards running through their lands. They worry about how 91 predicted leaks in the next 50 years will endanger drinking water.
Meanwhile, the company is urging the US to approve laxer standards to allow them to pump more oil at higher pressure through a thinner steel pipeline. TransCanada has promised the safety of the pipeline running over the aquifer and backed that up with bonds.
Of course people have challenged TransCanada's promises, but in corroboration, the US State Department reviews of the project had also been reassuring. That is, until this week, when the agency announced an independent investigation of the pipeline following revelations that the contractor hired by State to do environmental studies and public relations listed TransCanada as a client.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for its part, issued a scathing review of the pipeline project, criticizing projected greenhouse gas emissions, the history of Keystone pipeline spills, probable wetlands destruction, migratory bird disruption, and the impacts the pipeline could have on poor and indigenous populations.
Obama: Not In My Backyard (At Least Not Until After The Election)
Striking against the greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and the pipeline, the continued investment in oil energy technologies, and the related environmental affronts, protestors had noisily decamped to Washington DC over the last few months, letting their opinions be known as they marched around the White House and the EPA.
The total of all this -- the thousand turning up to hold hands in a giant circle round President Obama's home, the uncovering of conflicting interests, and the affected state governments discontents built to a grand crescendo until finally the White House announced it needed more time to study the situation.
The administration effectively put the decision off until after the election. (OK, I know, I Obama built my reputation on community organization, but enough for now...) The White House protestors went home to declare success.
Lobbying So Hard It's "Not Lobbying"
It's not for lack of lobbying that the pipeline was postponed. TransCanada and friends did just about all they could do. They spent millions, wrote editorials in places like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and got good support from entities like the American Petroleum Institute, not to mention economists, journalists and citizens on all sides of the political spectrum who impressed talking points like jobs, energy, international cooperation, and opportunity.
The Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, so new to the job that an internet search results shows her predecessor as Premier, will visit Washington D.C. next week. "Not to lobby", she says, rather she'll explain the economic situation of her oil dependent province and try to improve Alberta's public image. The previous Premier was a big lobbyist for both the tar sands and the pipeline, as depicted in "Ed Stelmach's Clumsy American Romance". British Columbia's The Tyee scoffed at the duplicity of the full page "get out the facts" ad former Premier Stelmach posted in the Washington Post, and winced over the $55,800 of tax payers' dollars he spent on it after the Post rejected his editorial. Between this and visuals of the province as a giant tar sand pit, the new Premier is wasting no time trying to remake Alberta's image in order to sell some oil.
Who Will Love The Pipeline In Their Backyard?
In announcing the postponement, the State Department said it wanted to look at "alternate routes" for the pipeline. While protestors had been promising to stop the pipeline, the Governor of Nebraska was also busy taking his state's cause to Washington. He's not opposed to the pipeline, he said, explaining why he was pushing to get the pipeline rerouted, just didn't want it in that particular part of his state.
This delay that the Obama Administration just served to TransCanada is exactly what corporations do to everyone else when they're trying to keep business the same. One delay at a time, it is actually an end game, and the oil companies play it well. And it turns out they're not happy when someone else is doing the delaying. TransCanada has not been responsive to requests for it to voluntarily change its route. A company spokesperson had warned The Guardian: "You can't just erase a line on a map and draw one somewhere else", and said the move would put the whole project in doubt.
That's doubtful, given how much oil and money is on the table. As Nebraska and grassroots efforts claim a coup, TransCanada will accelerate its lobbying, of course. And where will the pipeline end up? If they keep the current siting, it runs not only through the Ogallala aquifer, the Sandhills and a Nebraska seismic zone, it also crosses through Oklahoma's seismic zone with its recent 5.6 earthquake (and 36 aftershocks in the past week). Would that be good? But what state wants the pipeline in their backyard?
Whatever the new plan, however positive the delay, I'm not sure the protestors can necessarily claim victory quite yet.