Can Protests Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Bill McKibben Arrested in DC (Photo Shadia Fayne Wood via

With a revolution in Libya grabbing headlines and the president on vacation, you might be forgiven for being unaware of major protests underway in Washington this week. The issue? Approval of a new oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the US Gulf Coast.

The so-called “Keystone XL” pipeline would greatly expand the ability for tar sands crude to be piped out of Alberta to refineries in the US and elsewhere via ports on the Texas coast. Because the pipeline would cross an international border, it requires presidential action to be approved. Hence the protests, which call on the president to deny approval on the grounds that doing so would fly in the face of campaign promises to combat oil addiction and global warming.

Although there are a number of issues at play (the pipeline would cross major aquifers and other sensitive areas), the real issue is whether or not it makes good sense to continue to encourage the development of the Alberta tar sands at all.

The tar sands are a very expensive and extremely carbon intensive method of oil extraction – already responsible for over 5% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Building the pipeline would create thousands of jobs (at least during construction) but would be unlikely to make a significant dent in gasoline prices in the United States. Some even suggest it would increase the price of gas. Most importantly, the quantity of CO2 that would be released by continued development of the tar sands would result in what NASA’s James Hansen calls “a game-over proposition for climate change.” That’s the bad news.

The worse news is that the likelihood of the president paying attention appears low, at least for now. Media coverage does seem to be slowly picking up, with most major websites and publications at least paying lip service to the issue (see Google News here), but it’s not exactly a front page story just yet.

My argument has always been that if politics can encourage a graceful transition from an oil-based economy to one based on resource efficiency and cleantech, then we’d not only avert climactic chaos, but we’d create enormous business opportunities and millions of jobs in the process. We constantly report on the number of business innovations taking place on a daily basis in cleantech sector, alternative energy, transportationenergy efficiency and more.  Kicking and screaming to collect the last drop of oil no matter the cost sets a terrible precident and should not be encouraged.  Right now, our oil addiction is supported by anti-competitive subsidies in the form of military spending and socialized pollution costs which make cleaner technology slower to evolve, or at least forcing it to require yet more subsidies.  The tar sands development cuts out the military problem, but it does nothing to account for the unknown costs of dramatically increased GHG emissions.

Whether the pipeline really represents “game over” may be subject to debate, but it does make a convenient and practical line in the sand to challenge not only the president on, but the American & Canadian people as well.   This will be a fun one to watch.


Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

4 responses

  1. Hey Nick — I’m here in DC with the over 160 people who have been arrested thus far. We’re looking forward to over a thousand more in the coming days. And yes, media is certainly picking up. We’ve got two weeks and this is exactly where we expected to be.

    How about coming to DC and seeing for yourself? You could even come down to the White House and get arrested yourself … would love to have you there. You’ll have plenty of company.

  2. We have 200,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines which function safely. Lots of them on top of the Ogallala aquifer. Pipelines are the safest and cheapest way to transport oil and its products. The Alberta oil sands will be continue because there is no effective substitute for oil in transportion or its hundreds of other products.

    1. I think you are right that the pipeline safety issue is a straw man. The issue of whether it is a good idea or not to keep developing the tar sands is very much another issue. The pessimist in me would agree that these protests have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually accomplishing anything, but that doesn’t change the fact that moving transportation and plastics to non-petroleum sources is a good long term strategy!

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