Why is the pipeline on pause?

May 1, 2014

The ecological justice movement has grown, both in the size and determination of its protests and in the willingness of activists to embrace other social justice issues.

BARACK OBAMA has once again delayed a decision on final approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The move, announced quietly on April 18 as Washington was winding down for the Easter weekend, is clearly designed to avoid a contentious issue until after the November elections. "Approving the pipeline before the election would rankle Obama's allies and donors in the environmental community," the Washington Post noted, "but nixing it could be politically damaging to vulnerable Democrats running this year in conservative-leaning areas."

But the delay is also a sign of the continuing pressure from the grassroots against the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast--with dire consequences for any remaining hope of containing climate change, say scientists.

Earth Day on April 22 was the occasion for demonstrations around the country against Keystone and other issues of ecological justice, including the Cowboy Indian Alliance days of action centered on the National Mall in Obama's front yard. As this article was being written, meanwhile, the national Global Climate Convergence--10 days of action between Earth Day and May Day to highlight not only the many threats to the environment, but their connection to other social justice issues--was coming to an end.

Protesters march against the Keystone XL pipeline
Protesters march against the Keystone XL pipeline (Michael Hyman)

Until last week, it seemed like an environmental impact statement issued by the State Department in January had cleared the way for the Obama administration to green-light the project. Instead, the White House said that a decision would be premature, given a legal dispute over the pipeline route in Nebraska. Plus, State Department officials say they need more time to go over the "unprecedented number" of new public comments--some 2.5 million--received as of early March.

REPUBLICANS, WHO never met a pipeline they didn't like, attacked Obama for delaying a "job-creating project" because of pressure from "radical activists" from the environmental movement, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

But the president also faced criticism from Democrats who have lined their pockets with money from the fossil fuel industry. Days before the announcement, 11 Democratic senators wrote to Obama and urged him to make a final decision by the end of May. Among them is North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who declared in a statement, "It's absolutely ridiculous that this well over five-year-long process is continuing for an undetermined amount of time."

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu--whose personal pipeline to the oil and gas industry has netted her $530,000 in campaign contributions between 2009 and 2014--blasted the delay as "irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable...[T]he administration is sending a signal that the small minority who oppose the pipeline can tie up the process in court forever. There are 42,000 jobs, $20 billion in economic activity and North America's energy security at stake."

That "42,000 jobs" statistic is a favorite of pipeline boosters like Landrieu. But what they won't say is that all but 100 of those 42,000 jobs will be short-term construction jobs that end after six months.

Landrieu's complaint that Keystone is being stalled by a "small minority" is as disingenuous as the jobs claims. In actuality, millions of people across the U.S.--and around the world--are frightened about the Keystone pipeline because of the overwhelming environmental damage it would do. Former NASA scientist James Hansen famously said it was "game over for the climate" if the pipeline is built and the Alberta tar sands are exploited.

Then there are the thousands of people in communities in the pipeline's path--including Native Americans whose lands will be violated--who have protested, sat-in and otherwise tried to block the project, concerned that the risk of tar sands oil spills and pollution caused by the pipeline would far outweigh any economic benefit.

According to two public health organizations, the public health impact of the Keystone XL on our communities is far from clear. In a letter sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials call for a comprehensive study of the potential consequences of the pipeline based on already available information about the effects of tar sands production--something that, incredibly, hasn't yet been done during the administration's assessment process.

According to Georges Benjamin, executive director of the APHA, "If they put [the pipeline] through communities already economically and physically, from a health perspective, devastated, there is going to be a disparate impact when something bad happens, like a pipeline leak."

Would the promise of 42,000 mostly temporary jobs look so good, for example, if it was clear that sustained exposure to petroleum coke--a byproduct of tar sands production--could sicken people with asthma or even cancer.

THIS RAISES an important debate that author Jeremy Brecher commented on in the Nation: The myth that we have to choose between jobs or the environment is all too common, especially within the labor movement, where some unions, including the building trades and the AFL-CIO, support construction of the pipeline. As Brecher writes:

One starting point for that story is to recognize the common interest both in human survival and in sustainable livelihoods. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if God had intended some people to fight just for the environment and others to fight just for the economy, he would have made some people who could live without money and others who could live without water and air.

There are not two groups of people: environmentalists and workers. We all need a livelihood, and we all need a livable planet to live on. If we don't address both, we'll starve together while we're waiting to fry together.

But Brecher points toward the new and not-so-new ways in which workers and environmentalists are coming together to fight for a common cause.

For example, the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs--which includes the state AFL-CIO and a variety of unions, community organizations, religious groups and environmentalists--is dedicated to "the need to build a sustainable economy with good-paying jobs here in Connecticut while reducing the threat of climate disruption here and around the world."

Likewise, transportation industry workers, Brecher points out, have linked arms with environmental activists to fight for well-funded public transit systems, which would also produce jobs. As for the coal industry, Brecher says a study by the Labor Network for Sustainability:

found that in a number of cases, unions representing workers in coal-fired power plants have actually supported the planned closing of their highly polluting workplaces--because environmentalists and government officials worked with them to ensure a "just transition" in which workers livelihoods and the needs of their communities were addressed.

In other words, the idea that environmentalists and workers are natural enemies is a lie, spun by the media and the fossil fuel industry.

THE STRUGGLE to protect our communities and mitigate environmental destruction shouldn't be counterposed to creating long-term job creation--it's actually an essential part of the fight for jobs.

This has become increasingly prominent as the movement against the Keystone pipeline has developed and grown. At Global Climate Convergence actions during the 10 days between Earth Day and May Day, the need for "green jobs" was held up alongside the struggle for Native rights, opposition to environmental racism, and, of course, the battle against the Keystone XL.

The plan for the convergence itself--to link together Earth Day with May Day, the traditional celebration of workers' rights--was meant by organizers to weave together the strands of these movements.

No one should believe that Obama and his administration, in putting the Keystone decision on hold again, have suddenly grown spines in the face of the onslaught from Big Business or decided to fulfill the promises to protect the environment Obama once made on the campaign trail. But the delay is a testament to the spread of the protests against the pipeline--and of the underlying public sentiment in favor of action to prevent further ecological devastation.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement's greater openness to seeing the links between climate justice and other issues has more and more people calling for "system change, not climate change"--in recognition that capitalism itself is the source of the ecological crisis.

Back in 1999, we saw a similar nascent glimpse of the environmental movement converging with the labor movement. The World Trade Organization protests in Seattle were witness to what was then a radical phenomenon: "Teamster and turtles together," as the slogan went--with unionists marching not in opposition to, but alongside environmental activists in a movement for economic and ecological justice.

The movement for global justice faltered in the conservative political climate that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks. But the issues that emerged then remain just as relevant today, and more urgent then ever.

We need to build this new movement for system change, not climate change, on a stronger political footing, among a new generation of activists today.

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