The Keystone XL project, age 7, passed away on Friday, the victim of protracted political gamesmanship.
In its short life, the humble pipeline was able to achieve a symbolic power that elevated its public profile beyond its actual importance. Keystone XL may be gone, but its status as an exaggerated representation of greenhouse gas emissions (which it never really had all that much to do with) will live on. As will the oilsands, regardless of what American environmentalists may think yesterday’s tragedy has achieved.
Keystone XL came into this world in 2008, in Calgary, where parent company TransCanada Inc. proposed an expansion to its existing Keystone network that would transport crude from northern Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas.
As a youngster, the project seemed not much different than other projects in its class. Keystone XL would be a major extension to an existing cross-border pipeline, but only one of many in a pipeline network that crosses the U.S.-Canadian border dozens of times, linking domestic crude, foreign imports, refineries and finished gasoline to their respective markets.
It’s not impossible to imagine an outcome in which Keystone XL would have survived to live its life to the fullest. However, the project was barely conceived before spin doctors diagnosed at least two major flaws that would prove to be fatal: timing and politics.
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TransCanada Inc. applied for the project in the same year that 1,600 ducks landed on a Syncrude tailings pond. That put the spotlight on Alberta’s enormous industrial ambitions in its northern regions, highlighting massive, grey mining operations along with pictures of oily ducks.
Keystone XL spent much of its short life seeking approval from the U.S. State Department. With environmentalists competing for the attention of the Obama administration, they would only need to put enough pressure on the president, and enough money into his party, to ensure their wants were given priority, making the approval a political impossibility.
Things began to look more hopeful for Keystone XL’s condition in 2010, when the Canadian National Energy Board approved the line with provisos, and the State Department issued a draft environmental impact statement that noted the line would have a limited impact on the environment. (A position it would re-iterate in its final version.)
Still, the problems for Keystone XL only got worse.
Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, predictably cranky about hosting Keystone XL on their land, were suddenly granted an enormous public profile as the project morphed into a proper controversy. As Keystone XL’s afflictions became something of a cause célèbre, Margot Kidder, Daryl Hannah and Naomi Klein were among the famous environmentalists arrested during a two-week campaign at the gates of the White House in 2011.
Eager to do anything that might help, TransCanada caved to some of the public outcry, agreeing to re-route part of the line around sensitive sections of America’s Ogallala Aquifer. But then, more trouble: In 2012, James Hansen, who directed the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times slandering Keystone as the poster-child for an apocalyptic vision of climate change to come.
“If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate,” he wrote. He later testified to a congressional committee that his writing had been misinterpreted, but the damage was done.
Left untreated, the pipeline’s vulnerabilities metastasized.
The final stage of its terminal decline began when sniping on both sides of the American divide grew into untreatable rhetorical tumours that threatened to choke the oxygen of sane and reasonable discussion over the project’s merits and drawbacks.
By 2011, as Democrats and Republicans prepared for the coming election, Republicans tried to force emergency measures by implementing a 60-day time limit on President Barack Obama’s approval decision. He evaded the ruse, rejecting the line, while inviting TransCanada to submit another proposal, which it did.
In 2015, an emboldened now-Republican dominated U.S. Senate tried to test its newly won legislative strength by passing a veto-proof Keystone XL bill. It lost by only four votes.
After sinking $2.4 billion into the project, TransCanada believed Keystone XL still had a shot at survival. But after surviving the rigors of politics and public opinion, what kind of life would it be? Tortured, strained and uncertain. Keystone XL appeared to be slipping into a vegetative state.
As any parent would, TransCanada made one final plea for time by requesting a delay of the State Department’s decision to end its life earlier this week.
This was denied.
Vilified in its time and taken from us too young to win the love it deserved, it is unlikely that Keystone XL will be mourned by any who did not know it well
On Friday morning, Barack Obama dragged the catatonic patient to the steps of the U.S. State Department and shot it dead. It might have even been merciful if only he had had the nerve to do it sooner.
“The critical factor in my determination was this: moving forward with this project would significantly undermine our ability to continue leading the world in combating climate change,” read a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, written with what we can only presume was a straight face.
Vilified in its time and taken from us too young to win the love it deserved, it is unlikely that Keystone XL will be mourned by any who did not know it well.
The project is survived by 31 oil pipelines that cross the U.S.-Canada border, including Phase 1 of the Keystone pipeline system, which began operation in 2010. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that haters go ahead and enjoy those feelings of moral superiority, unhindered by worries about how they’ll get to work and where their groceries came from.