Widgets Magazine


Editorial: Why Keystone XL is the wrong battle for environmentalists

We consider ourselves to be strongly supportive of environmental causes. We believe climate change to be one of the most important issues facing our generation and would gladly participate in advocacy efforts to change the current course of U.S. policy (or lack thereof). However, we do not view the Keystone XL pipeline as the right battle for the cause. After months of protests led by Bill McKibben and his environmentalist followers, thousands of civil disobedience arrests, and mountains of apocalyptic rhetoric, President Obama decided to delay the request for the pipeline that would bring tar sands oil down from Canada and hand a victory to environmentalists. We don’t see it as a victory worth winning.


Contrary to popular belief, blocking this pipeline will make no substantive contribution to curbing climate change. We do think concerns about the potential harm to Nebraska’s aquifers are a good reason to reconsider the pipeline, but that is not what the debate has been about. While oil extracted from Canadian tar sands does produce about 15 percent greater carbon emissions than conventional oil, keeping it out of the United States will not keep it from being burned. If the tar sands are used by China, and the U.S. uses slightly cleaner oil, carbon emissions have only been redistributed, not reduced. Furthermore, blocking one pipeline is unlikely to even keep the oil out of America when other pipelines and modes of transport will simply serve the same purpose. For these reasons, New York Times energy and environmental reporter Andrew Revkin calls Keystone “a distraction from core issues…and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” As Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains, demand for oil and other fossil fuels is the key variable in the future of the climate. Putting a price on carbon to slash demand for fossil fuels would make oil sands development obsolete and a failure to do so would result in huge climate problems whether or not this pipeline is approved.


Environmentalists did have their chance to make a real difference two years ago, but their enthusiasm lacked noticeably when it counted. The cap-and-trade bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives but languished in the Senate would have used carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It would have permanently and dramatically altered America’s position on climate and perhaps even set the stage for the global greenhouse gas reduction treaty that failed with it in 2010. And yet, we have trouble remembering any events on campus supporting this legislation or protesting its failure. There were no civil disobedience arrests on the steps of the Capitol Building. McKibben even opposed cap-and-trade.


Environmentalists’ opposition to Keystone has succeeded mainly in undermining President Obama and handing a political victory to Republicans. GOP Representative Tim Griffin of Arkansas summed it up nicely by announcing, “I want to wake up talking about Keystone pipeline, and I want to go to bed at night talking about Keystone pipeline.” And why not, when the pipeline makes the President choose between alienating one of two core constituencies; labor and environmentalists? Meanwhile, the people who want to shut down the EPA laugh gleefully and reap the benefits of this protracted tussle.


Some on the far left would argue that the President doesn’t have an environmental record worth defending, but they are mistaken. Under President Obama, the Recovery Act poured $90 billion into clean energy, the largest investment in American history. Major improvements in fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks will save billions of barrels of oil and trillions of dollars in fuel costs. The EPA will regulate mercury, arsenic, toxic air metals and carbon dioxide for the first time. Most importantly, blame for the failure of cap-and-trade lies with a dysfunctional Senate that requires 60 votes for every bill. Where the executive branch could act, President Obama did, and where legislation failed it is Congress who deserves the blame.


To sum up, we agree with observers who note that the sheer energy behind the Keystone XL protests has been impressive. Pointed toward a better cause, it could and would have been inspiring. But as it is, all environmentalists have accomplished is to blow an insignificant issue way out of proportion, paint themselves as extremists uninterested in the facts as well as play into the hands of politicians actively opposed to environmental protection.

About Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Victor Xu '17, Executive Editor Will Ferrer '18, Managing Editor of Opinions Michael Gioia '17, Desk Editor of Opinions Jimmy Stephens '17, Senior Staff Writer Kylie Jue '17, Senior Staff Writer Olivia Hummer '17 and Senior Staff Writer Andrew Vogeley '17. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.