With the Keystone Pipeline, Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands

For environmentalists protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, the battle is about more than just transporting tar sands oil from Alberta. It’s about whether the United States — and the rest of the world — will finally come to its senses about global warming.

In the last three years, three things have happened to the climate movement, one political, one meteorological, and one geological. Taken together, they explain why 1,253 people were arrested outside the White House in late summer protesting the Keystone XL pipeline — and why that protest may be the start of something big and desperate.

Here’s the political thing: When Barack Obama was elected, he carried with him the hopes of people the world around that something might finally happen to break the 20-year stalemate that had prevented meaningful action on global warming. That hope was perhaps always excessive — but then, the man himself had done all that he could to encourage it. On the night he clinched the nomination he said that during his presidency “the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.” Waiting for a messiah, we managed to convince ourselves we might have found one.

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White House Tar Sands Protest

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Keystone XL opponents demonstrate in front of the White House in August.

American enviros sensed he had no real intention of battling the oil companies early on: Deciding between dealing with health care and with energy, he chose to use his considerable political capital on the former. You can argue that it made moral and political sense to deal with the last question of the 20th century before turning to the first of this millennium, or you can argue it didn’t. What you can’t argue is that health care used up that capital, as the rest of the world found out in Copenhagen. The president’s State Department team had managed to accomplish nothing in the year beforehand, leaving Obama and his Chinese counterpart to scribble together a last-minute plan for a meaningless set of voluntary commitments.

That movie didn’t end the way it was supposed to, and a few months later the president made not the slightest move as carbon legislation died in the U.S. Senate. In essence, 20 years worth of work was done, and mostly wasted; there wasn’t going to be a price on carbon in America, and hence not in most of the rest of the world, anytime soon — an assumption underlined by the results of the 2010 election.

While people were protesting the pipeline, the U.S. set a new record for most weather disasters in a year.

Here’s the meteorological thing. While the administration was fiddling around with little changes (good ones, but little ones — adjustments in automobile mileage regulations, for instance, which were pretty easy to get since the federal government owned the auto industry), Mother Nature was fiddling around with the planet. Sometime in the last few years it became utterly clear we’d left the Holocene behind, bound for some new, chaotic place in which humans had fundamentally altered the planet.

2010 was the warmest year for which we have records; Arctic sea ice is now at its lowest recorded level, while Canada’s Arctic ice shelves have shrunk by half in just the last six years. And what all this has shown is that the planet is coming unglued, at least the planet on which civilization developed. We’ve seen flooding and drought on a scale never witnessed before, from the Indus to the Mississippi, from Texas to the North China Plain. By the end of last year, the world’s biggest insurance company, Munich Re, was declaring that the unprecedented run of catastrophes “cannot be explained without global warming.”

And it’s not just happening in poor places that we’ve gotten used to thinking of as climate change’s first victims. It’s happening in President Obama’s own country. While people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline were being handcuffed outside his house in August, the U.S. set a new record for the most multi-billion dollar weather disasters in a single year (and with four months to go!). We’re getting scared in a new way, as the abstract threat of climate change gives way to its very scary reality. After Irene took out much of Vermont’s infrastructure with its record rains, Gov. Peter Shumlin pointed out that the state’s weather was more like Costa Rica’s. “We didn’t used to get weather patterns like this in Vermont,” he said. The same week, the head of the Texas forest fire service said “no one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions,” which was almost certainly true.

North American environmentalists are fighting simply to keep carbon in the ground.

And here’s the geological thing. It’s been slowly dawning on people over the last couple of years that oil and gas companies are finding lots of new supplies. Peak oil was true in the sense that we’ve run out of the easy stuff — but as that realization spiked prices, engineers set to work making hard stuff easier, and they’ve succeeded in ways most people hadn’t expected. So now we have shale gas wells tearing up the countryside in the eastern U.S., and shale oil operations turning North Dakota into a Lutheran Kuwait.

And then there’s the granddaddy of them all, the tars sands megaproject in northern Alberta. Geologists had known about this vast deposit for years, but never figured it would be economical to develop. At $80 a barrel, and with new technologies, it turns out you can get it to work, which the Canadians have done with a vengeance. They have a pool of oil — and hence of carbon — about the same size as the one we’ve largely burned in Saudi Arabia. If we torch most of it, then it’s “essentially game over for the climate,” in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

In other words, the idea that we’ve had for two decades that we’re destined to transition to renewable energy may be wrong. It’s increasingly possible instead that we’ll just replace cheap fossil fuel with more expensive fossil fuel. Only a price on carbon can really prevent that from happening — but there won’t be a price on carbon soon, because Obama wouldn’t stand up to the oil companies.

And so, backs to the wall, North American environmentalists are now fighting a simpler, more basic battle — not for overhauling laws and economies, but simply to keep carbon in the ground. It’s not an elegant battle with lots of complicated legislation; it is an elemental one, easy to understand, worth going to jail for. We know that we’re simply buying time — given enough years and a high enough price, Canada and everyone else will figure out some way to get oil and coal out of the ground. But if we can stop them, maybe the planet will come to its senses about global warming. Maybe we’ll be able to look at things like Australia’s about-to-be-passed carbon price and see it working (or not, since big energy is doing everything it can to weaken its provisions). Maybe we’ll get scared enough to get serious. Maybe the time we’re buying is precious.

For now, it’s a desperate battle to keep things from getting worse. We fight coal plants and coal mines, tanker ports and pipelines. Keystone XL is such a huge deal because the president can actually stop it himself, without consulting our inane Congress. That’s why we’ll be surrounding the White House on Nov. 6, circling it with people simply holding signs with quotes from his campaign. Like, “it’s time to end the tyranny of oil.” It sure is, and if Obama for once actually lives up to his words, just maybe it will signal something new about him. My guess is we’re not going to change meteorology or geology, which leaves us with politics.