From left, Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers International… (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON…)
In May, environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben — pondering a simmering energy issue — asked a NASA scientist to calculate what it would mean for the Earth’s climate if Canada extracted all of the petroleum in its rich Alberta oil sands region.
The answer to McKibben’s query came a month later: It would push atmospheric carbon concentrations so high that humans would be unable to avert a climate disaster. “It is essentially game over,” wrote James E. Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is one of the nation’s leading voices against fossil fuel energy.
That was the moment when McKibben — who had already mobilized a global grass-roots climate movement from his home in Vermont — decided to join the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from Canada’s Alberta province to the Gulf Coast. It was a decision that eventually landed McKibben in jail, along with Hansen and more than a thousand other pipeline foes who have been arrested in front of the White House.
The Keystone permit decision has landed literally and figuratively on the White House’s doorstep. Several key union allies and the Canadian government are pitted against environmental and youth activists who are threatening to turn Keystone into a campaign issue for President Obama.
The question of whether to allow construction of the pipeline has spawned football-themed ads in Nebraska, protests across the country and Canadian-led strategy sessions for members of Congress in the offices of a D.C. law firm. And the State Department, which is charged with making the permit decision because the pipeline crosses an international border, is on the spot for its handling of the review process.
“This project represents a collision of multiple national interests and multiple political interests,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as spokesman for the State Department during part of the review process. “Energy security and environment normally go together, but in this case they are somewhat at odds. All have come together to make this a bigger deal than it might have appeared at first blush.”
Charles K. Ebinger, a senior fellow for energy at the Brookings Institution, said the issue has “become a test case for the Democrats,” with two factions within the Obama camp asking the same question: “Is he with us or against us?”
“I do think it has become a defining political issue,” Ebinger said. “I don’t think he’s going to win any friends whichever way he goes.”
TransCanada applied in 2008 for a permit to build the pipeline. In the early stages of the process, the pipeline’s backers had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about winning approval. Only one U.S. environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had an anti-oil-sands project up and running. Not only had TransCanada won approval for an earlier stage of Keystone, but the State Department approved another oil sands pipeline, Enbridge Energy’s Alberta Clipper, in August 2009.
Canadian Embassy officials made repeated rounds on Capitol Hill to enlist support, distributing fact sheets about oil sands production — also called tar sands because operators extract a viscous oil called “bitumen” from formations of sand, clay and water — and the number of jobs a new pipeline could generate in the United States. Oil companies that extract crude from the oil sands — Shell, Exxon Mobil and Chevron — and those with refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast — Valero Energy, Shell and Total — supported the pipeline.
Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner, has a refinery in Port Arthur that uses oil that arrives by tanker, mostly from Mexico and South America. But with Mexican oil output waning, Valero spokesman Bill Day said, the Keystone pipeline would give Valero “more flexibility, more choices, more options,” and more leverage in negotiating prices.
Opposition, lobbying grow
But opposition to tar sands exploration, and the pipeline, was growing among environmentalists. Tapping tar sands is an energy-intensive process more like strip mining than oil drilling. Kenny Bruno of the liberal advocacy group Corporate Ethics International said he and other activists targeted Keystone’s expansion because “it’s an infrastructure linchpin for the expansion of the tar sands.”
Lawmakers on both sides wrote to the administration. While dozens sent letters supporting the project, 50 Democrats wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on June 23, 2010, to complain that the department’s draft environmental impact statement failed to take into account the full climate impact of shipping crude from the oil sands.