The Times has a forthright, revealing story today on the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. Opponents of the project admit, as many observers have long suspected, that the fight is a symbolic organizing principle and fundraising tool — a million-dollar MacGuffin, if you will — rather than a cause that honest environmentalists think is worthwhile per se. The story explains:
Environmentalists want to stop the transport of 800,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil from tar sands formations in Canada to Texas refineries, and an oil extraction process — effectively a strip-mining operation in once-pristine forests in Alberta — that emits more greenhouse gases than other forms of production. Proponents of the Keystone XL project say that the oil will come out of the ground with or without a new pipeline and that other methods of transport, like rail, cause more pollution. They point out that TransCanada began operations on Wednesday on a southern pipeline segment that connects to existing pipelines to provide a route from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
Although some critics say the environmental movement has made a strategic error by focusing so much energy on the pipeline, no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time. The seven-year-old email list of 350.org, an organization that focuses on climate change, has more than doubled to 530,000 people since the group began fighting the pipeline in August 2011. In addition, about 76,000 people have signed a “pledge of resistance” sponsored by seven liberal advocacy groups in which they promise to risk arrest in civil disobedience if a State Department environmental analysis, expected this year, points toward approval of the pipeline.
Building or not building a pipeline is an easy issue for people to understand; EPA coal regulations or CAFE fuel-efficiency rules are not. And even more appeal for the pipeline issue comes from the fact that people also just think pipelines are bad and scary, and cause oil spills in your backyard — when they’re actually a safer way to transport oil than the alternatives.
There is a utilitarian justification for the work of these campaigners: Maybe the environmental and economic costs of blocking Keystone are worth it if it translates into a movement that’s capable of getting actually productive environmental legislation through. Hysterical claims about it from scientists such as James Hansen are harder to rationalize. But from the perspective of the U.S. government, this is also perverse: President Obama is believed to be slow-walking the pipeline in large part to avoid angering his environmentalist left flank (though this explanation seemed stronger before his final election). His own State Department hasn’t found serious-enough environmental concerns to justify blocking the pipeline, so it repeatedly claims it needs more time to study the issue. Actually rejecting the pipeline would annoy construction unions and red-state Democrats. The decision is up to him in the end, because the pipeline crosses an international border — he could make the call right now, but he won’t.
The president is playing a game, too: He could make a decision, but he won’t — not because the fight is good for him, as it is for the environmental groups, but because declaring a winner, which happens to be his job, will be bad for him. That kind of behavior is fine for the Sierra Club; it’s disappointing to see the president manipulate the State Department and the EPA in such a way.