Photo by Mark Brooks

Obama’s Keystsone XL Reversal: Could the Tide Slowly be Turning Against Dirty Oil?


Editor’s Note: We are pleased to welcome Ottawa-based environmental journalist and educator Mark Brooks to our team of Common Sense contributors. A former analyst for the Government of Canada and an author whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen, Mark brings a national perspective to The Common Sense Canadian. 


Strolling around Washington, D.C. last weekend, I came upon an impressive memorial to the famous wartime president Franklin Roosevelt. Upon the gray granite walls were inscribed many of FDR’s most memorable quotations. “Men and nature must work hand in hand,” he wrote in a 1935 message to Congress. “The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.”

Having traveled to the U.S. capital to cover the latest protest of the Keystone XL project, I wondered what FDR might say about TransCanada’s controversial pipeline proposal. A pipeline that would transport tar sands crude from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, Keystone has been described as a 2700 km “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” in the words of author and activist Bill McKibben. Protest organizers had hoped to encircle the White House with at least 4000 people in what McKibben called both an “O-shaped hug” and “house arrest.” Instead, at least 10,000 protesters showed up, young and old, from all over North America, ringing President Obama’s residence three-deep.

This action was the latest in a growing campaign to try to choke off supply routes to the tar sands. The company behind the pipeline, TransCanada, responded in an entirely predictable manner, betraying an almost total lack of understanding of some very legitimate concerns. “What these millionaire actors and professional activists don’t seem to understand is that saying no to Keystone means saying yes to more conflict oil from the Middle East and Venezuela filling American gas tanks,” TransCanada spokesman James Millar said. “After the Washington protesters fly back home, they will forget about the millions of Americans who can’t find work.”

Only a few months ago, approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline was considered a fait accompli by many of the project’s supporters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the approval a “no brainer” and TransCanada was so sure it would get the go-ahead from U.S. regulators, they had already bought the pipe and was stockpiling it in North Dakota. The company claims to have already spent $1.9 billion to secure land and equipment for the project and it fully expected to begin construction early in 2012. This has all changed dramatically now that President Obama has ordered the U.S. State Department to conduct a thorough re-review of the project, effectively delaying approval of Keystone until after next year’s U.S. elections.

While another version of Keystone XL may yet be approved, the delay represents a substantial victory for those groups opposing the pipeline. It is also another significant setback for the beleaguered tar sands industry coming as it does on the heels of a European Commission move to classify oil from the tar sands as carbon intensive and highly polluting.

Truth be told, Keystone approval has been plagued by problems for some time now. The U.S. State Department came under heavy criticism this summer for releasing a hasty environmental assessment that found the project would pose no significant environmental risks. It was later revealed that the Department not only allowed TransCanada to select the contractor that conducted the review, the company chosen, Cardno Entrix, turned out to have business ties with TransCanada and would likely stand to benefit from the project’s approval. Environmental groups also released emails that showed a friendly relationship between officials at State and representatives of TransCanada.

The Nebraska legislature then began considering legislation that would have forced TransCanada to reroute the pipeline away from the Ogallala aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the region. Comments by President Barack Obama further fuelled speculation that the writing was on the wall when he took personal responsibility for approval of the pipeline and said that “folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren’t going to say to themselves, ‘we’ll take a few thousand jobs’ if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health or if … rich land that is so important to agriculture in Nebraska ends up being adversely affected.”

The decision to delay was nonetheless remarkable given the current dismal economic climate in the U.S. and the well-financed campaigns being waged by TransCanada and the governments of Canada and Alberta promising jobs and economic growth should Keystone be approved. In the end, a hodge-podge collection of environmental and labour groups, Nebraskan residents, a few politicians and a handful of U.S. celebrities have managed to, temporarily at least, derail the $7 billion project. As Naomi Klein tweeted after the decision was announced, when the campaign against Keystone XL began, “most Americans hadn’t heard of the tar sands, let alone Keystone. This is what 3 months of amazing campaigning can do.”

The governments of Canada and Alberta both expressed disappointment with the decision but remain optimistic that the project will eventually be given the green light. But rather than addressing the very legitimate concerns of the many disparate groups who have come together to oppose Keystone XL, Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said recently that “if they don’t want our oil…it is obvious we are going to export it elsewhere.” TransCanada immediately warned that the delay could kill the pipeline but vowed to work with the State Department to find a new route. The company’s Chief Executive Russ Girling has suggested a legal battle could ensue if the pipeline is delayed.

What backers of the pipeline have not yet been able to fully grasp is that, for the growing movement opposing the project, this campaign goes far beyond Keystone. At its core, this is a struggle over the kind of energy future we want to build for ourselves. When I spoke with Naomi Klein in Washington, she put it this way. “This is not just about Keystone, it’s about all the pipelines. Whether it’s in Nebraska or British Columbia, whether we’re talking about Northern Gateway or Kinder Morgan, people have made it clear they’re willing to take actions in line with the urgency of this crisis. Even if they approve this pipeline or any other, they have to know there will be people in front of every bulldozer.” Sure enough, in the hours following the State Department decision, the Twitter-verse was buzzing with individuals committing to take non-violent action should the Keystone project ever be approved.

Also speaking in D.C., NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, captured what many in the crowd and a growing number around the world are coming to realize, that we are at a critical juncture. “There is a limit to how much carbon we can pour into the atmosphere. Tar sands are the turning point in our fossil fuel addiction. Either we begin on the road to breaking our addiction or we turn to even dirtier fossil fuels.” If Keystone XL or the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the west coast of B.C. is built, it will ensure increased tar sands production and a commensurate rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

For climate justice activists, labour groups and citizens assembled in Washington, this scenario is no longer acceptable. The decision to delay Keystone XL is no doubt reason for optimism, but it likely represents only the beginning for a movement that now appears to be at last finding its stride. What these folks are demanding is not simply that the tar sands pipelines be re-routed to safer terrain or that adequate measures are put in place to prevent oil spills, they want a long-term plan to gradually wean ourselves off fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future that could create millions of green jobs, something the governments of Canada and the U.S. have thus far refused to consider. Until they do, it will mean that “the arteries that are carrying this dirty oil all over the world” must be blocked, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians told me. “If we can stop Keystone, we can stop Enbridge going west. It’s the beginning of a real movement with Americans and people around the world to say this is the wrong model.”

Mark Brooks’ Video of Naomi Klein speaking in Washington, D.C. on November 5


About Mark Brooks

Mark Brooks is a journalist, broadcaster and environmental educator based in Ottawa. He hosts an environment show on CKCU radio and has written for numerous publications including the Globe and Mail, Alternatives Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, Carbon Markets North America, among others. He also worked for years as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada in the departments of Finance, Transport, Health, Industry and the Privy Council Office. He posts interviews and commentary on environmental and economics issues at

4 thoughts on “Obama’s Keystsone XL Reversal: Could the Tide Slowly be Turning Against Dirty Oil?

  1. Great article. I think Obama delayed decision until after the election to shore up his hopes of winning another term. But since he hasn’t delivered on his ‘change you can believe in’ platform there is no reason to think he would derail the pipeline. Too bad Americans and Canadians have only ever really had the political choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Which leaves; as you say, only the people’s movement “to gradually wean ourselves off fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future…”
    If only we could also wean ourselves off ‘representative democracy’ and towards a clean vote in our own affairs. Nothing will change until the political model is changed; except in circumstances where the people are so annoyed at government liberties that they get out in the streets on certain issues. Which will definitely be the case as far as the ‘Northern Gateway’ is concerned.

    But what will slip through while we are defeating that? Omnibus crime bills? Less public funding for political parties? Neo-obsolescent fighter bombers? Further cuts to health care to finance more privately owned debt obligations?
    We are playing 52 card Monte against the House.

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