Alyssa Battistoni writes: When President Obama announced his support for the southern half of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline last week in Cushing, Okla., it was a blow to the environmental groups that had worked to stop the pipeline from going forward and succeeded in delaying approval of its northern half. In particular, Obama’s statement that his administration had already approved “enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the earth” seemed intended to remind anti-pipeline campaigners that Keystone XL is just one of many pipelines with the potential to transport Canadian tar sands oil to the United States, and TransCanada just one of many players in the energy game.
Cushing was a particularly appropriate setting to convey that message: It’s the crossroads for much of the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure, and inadequate pipeline capacity has made the town a bottleneck for fossil fuels, particularly with the recent influx of oil coming from Alberta. At any given time, between 30 and 40 million gallons of oil sit there, awaiting transport to Midwestern or Gulf Coast refineries. This means that the chunk of the pipeline that connects Cushing’s surplus to refineries along the Gulf Coast — the chunk of the project that’s moving forward — is the one that TransCanada really cares about in the short term.
Other companies aren’t waiting around to see what happens with Keystone XL either: Enbridge, a Canadian energy company, has already purchased a stake in a pipeline that currently transports crude from the Gulf Coast to Cushing, with the intention of reversing the pipeline’s flow in order to carry tar sands oil south from Alberta. In conjunction with Houston-based company Enterprise, Enbridge is also planning to construct a new pipeline that would expand an existing route to bring tar sands oil to the Gulf; because the new pipeline would not cross international borders, it would not require State Department review. Those two projects combined would add the capacity to transport 850,000 barrels of tar sands oil each day by 2014, according to Enbridge’s CEO; by comparison, Keystone XL would transport around 700,000 barrels daily.
And there are plenty of other ways to get tar sands oil into the country: Other pipelines in the extensive network of fossil fuel infrastructure built to transport regular crude could begin carrying tar sands oil instead, while existing tar sands pipelines could ramp up the amount of oil they transport. Tar sands oil could also be transported by rail, though it’s less economical to do so; nevertheless, Canadian railroads have long been eyeing the fuel, and a report commissioned by the U.S. State Department estimated that railroads could transport up to 1.25 million barrels per day. In short, Obama’s announcement was a reminder that delaying, or even derailing, Keystone XL is a temporary victory, and one more important in symbolism than substance.
Pipeline protesters know this: As Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Keystone movement, told Joe Nocera, “Keystone, by itself, won’t make or break the environment.” On the other hand, nor will it create jobs, reduce our reliance on foreign oil, or affect gas prices. In sum, the pipeline itself will have remarkably little effect on any of the issues it’s come to symbolize. Nocera and others have used that fact to argue that we might as well just go ahead and build it — that is, to shut down the debate over Keystone XL and tar sands instead of opening it up.
But anti-Keystone forces have always been upfront about the fact that they see the battle over the pipeline as a political one. McKibben has repeatedly described the pipeline protests as the start of a broader fight against climate change, and as a means to galvanize a public conversation about climate change, fossil fuels and carbon emissions — topics that American politicians have for the most part tried desperately to avoid.