I thought it was inevitable. The Keystone XL pipeline would definitely get built. To my knowledge, there had never been a single proposed pipeline between Canada and the United States that hadn’t been approved. Why would this one be any different?
The fossil fuel industry is very adept, in general, at creating the perception that all of the proven reserves (oil, gas, and coal that have yet to be extracted but could be using today’s technology) will be inevitably exploited—they do not consider that these reserves would not be tapped. The story goes like this: if all these reserves are developed, then these companies have guaranteed revenue for the long term and there will most certainly be need for additional pipelines to bring their product to market. Needless to say, with this in the back of my head, I was skeptical that an environmental campaign against Keystone would end well.
Before I began my PhD, when I was an analyst at the Pembina Institute, I tried to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of this metre-wide pipeline that would pump oil from Canada’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast. I wrote policy reports and shared my analysis with U.S. Congressional Committees, think tanks and journalists – I grew tired of hearing myself drone on about broader environmental damage from the pipeline.
I was far from being a lone wolf. Many prominent American environmental groups rallied against this pipeline, investing scarce resources into trying to stop it from ever being built. Despite the odds, these non-profits wanted to send a signal to oil companies, U.S. Congress, and the Obama Administration: we cannot keep building new fossil fuel infrastructure. We need to make hard choices now if we are to stop climate change.
But last Friday, the impossible happened. President Obama announced the rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. Some of the reasons he gave were some of the reasons I and others had been advocating: the impacts of the product flowing through the pipeline—not just the pipe itself—must be considered and, to quote the President, “if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, 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.”
Trust me, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of the technical arguments for and against the pipeline, tabulating greenhouse gas emissions and economic netbacks. Evidence-based analysis is certainly important but as both sides of this debate know well — symbols matter.
Symbols represent something beyond themselves. Think of Aylan Kurdi, the boy who drowned this September in Turkey trying to flee the conflict in Syria. Think of Edward Snowden. Osama bin Laden. Closer to the energy industry, think of Chernobyl, Fukushima, Exxon Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon are all powerful symbols whose meaning extends beyond the specifics of each catastrophe.
President Obama stated that Keystone occupied “an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.” The thing is, serious policy matters like climate change need symbols too. Environmentalists know this — read this insightful Vox article by David Roberts to better understand the logic of the Keystone campaigners.
The symbolism of rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline is not lost on President Obama. He knows that in a few weeks world leaders will gather in Paris to negotiate a global climate agreement. The cognitive dissonance of seeing the most powerful person in the world saying no to the most powerful industry in the world because of the catastrophic political, economic, social and environmental risks associated with climate change sends a clear and hopeful message.
May that message help reset the inevitability narrative around fossil fuel dependence that is so deeply entrenched in our society, even in folks like myself.