WASHINGTON – On Feb. 24, U.S. President Obama vetoed a bill that would have approved construction of the final phase of the Keystone XL pipeline. After installation, this pipeline system would carry 830,000 gallons of crude oil from oil sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The current legislative battle is over the final phase of 1,179 miles of pipe that are part of the entire 3,200 mile project.In January, Keystone proponents won three significant victories. Both the U.S. House and Senate approved the project. At the same time, Nebraska’s state Supreme Court removed the remaining blocks preventing the pipeline from being constructed in its state.
Then, in mid February, the approved federal bill was sent to President Obama, who promptly vetoed it, saying in a message to Congress:
The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.
Experts do report that this veto may have dealt a fatal blow to the Keystone proposal, at least in its current form. Congress doesn’t appear to have the votes necessary to block the veto. In addition, legal battles have re-surfaced in Nebraska, which have halted Trans Canada’s acquisition of needed land. Does it mean an end to the project entirely or just delays?
For those unfamiliar with Keystone XL, CNN has published a short digest on the issues being debated. Briefly, proponents argue that the new lines will bring temporary and permanent jobs, boost the economy and make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. Opponents cite numerous environmental concerns, as well as the destruction of lands owned by Indigenous populations and the potential threats to those communities.
As has become quite commonplace, this battle pits economic stability and growth against environmental safety and community protection. It is an old struggle dressed in new clothes. However, as pointed out by Chris Mooney of The Washington Post, the conversation may be changing, which makes the veto particularly significant. As Mooney points out, past cultural debates have centered on finding ways to make production safer or cleaner. This may be the first time at this level of government that the conversation focuses on stopping production entirely. The message isn’t “do it cleaner;” but rather “don’t do it all.”
We talked to a number of Pagans who are, in some form, significantly engaged in environmental activism. As expected, they all were very pleased with the veto. Courtney Weber, co-founder of the Pagan Environmental Coaltion of NYC, said:
It’s certainly very exciting and encouraging for the environmental movement. This pipeline is never going to supply a large number of permanent jobs and its oil was never meant to support the American people–it’s been an export-only plan from day one! A few will get rich and many will run the serious risk of contaminated farmland and drinking water…
As a member of the Pagan Environmental Coalition of NYC, this news is very encouraging. Our work focuses on encouraging sustainable green infrastructure and opposing fossil fuel infrastructure. I hope that this will encourage Governors Cuomo and Christie to veto to the Port Ambrose LNG port, which would have the same dangerous impacts on the Tri-State coastline as Keystone would to middle America.
I’m heartened by the President’s veto. After all, he has two daughters who will have to live in the world. I think he knows how serious our environmental problems have become and feels, as I do, that all the jobs in the world cannot justify the risk of such disastrous environmental degradation that Keystone could generate.
I fail to see how imperiling our lands with a pipeline does anyone any good. This proposed pipeline would be 36″ in diameter; the recent broken lines in the Northern Plains and elsewhere were only 4″ diameter. I shudder to think of the devastation a broken pipe could wreak. Not to mention the fact that plans call for it to traverse sovereign Native American lands. Furthermore, exploiting our Earth for petroleum-derived energy sources ignores the bigger problems. Instead, we should be cultivating alternative energy sources.
I hope it’s the end, because I know the Congress doesn’t have the votes to overrule Obama’s veto. This allows more time to educate more people who’ve had their heads in the sand or who’ve been convinced otherwise about our environmental crisis.
O’Brien and Weber point to the typical concerns raised by pipeline construction, which include leaks, spills, the acquisition of “sovereign Native American lands,” exploitation of oil sands, the impact on coast lines and climate change. Blogger and Druid John Beckett said:
The Keystone XL Pipeline is troublesome on many counts. Much of the recent debate has focused on the risks to our water supply – the pipeline would run over the largest underground aquifer in North America and leaks are virtually inevitable. But there’s been little talk of the fact that the pipeline was designed to transfer oil from the Canadian tar sands. Tar sands extraction and refining are some of the dirtiest operations in the entire petroleum industry – some have called it “Canada’s Mordor.”
Beyond that, this project extracts additional fossil fuels to drive additional consumption, which will dump additional climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere. The entire tar sands project needs to be killed, not just the pipeline.
Beckett went on to say:
I have been critical of many of President Obama’s decisions and I want to acknowledge when he does the right thing. I’m very happy he vetoed the bill approving the construction of the pipeline. But I’m disappointed he didn’t use the occasion to emphasize the need to reduce carbon emissions and to encourage the Canadians to leave the tar sands in the ground.
Instead, his veto statement focused on procedural issues: “this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest.” This leaves open the possibility that his administration or that of the next President could decide the pipeline is an acceptable risk. It is not.
His skepticism is justified, considering that Keystone proponents in Congress have pledged to overturn the veto or attach the proposal to other legislation. Beckett’s sentiments were echoed by others interviewed. Weber said:
This veto is not a coffin nail on tar sands oil. This veto doesn’t get rid of it, it only keeps it in limbo. It is likely to come back attached to another bill. In addition, that oil can still flow through numerous other pipelines being built or already built. But it’s an important symbolic action in which public health and environmental concerns are given consideration before profits of large companies.
James Stovall, who was recently elected to the board of directors for the Jackson County Conservation District (JCCD), offered his personal opinion, saying:
I do think the veto was the right call, but sadly it is not the last of the issue. The President vetoed the Legislative attempt to pass the pipeline but could still approve it after State Department studies are completed. Be it by pipeline or rail we need to make environmental safety is paramount. Make sure to keep speaking to the White House on these matters.
Similarly, Wild Hunt columnist and activist Alley Valkyrie, who has extensively written about and researched oil sands and the transport of energy resources, said in reaction:
While I’m glad that Obama decided to veto Keystone XL, it’s definitely not a victory. This veto is far from the end of the Keystone XL fight, and I have no doubt that the current Congress will try again and again to revive Keystone, most likely in the form of attachments to other bills. And meanwhile, while everyone is focused on and distracted by this one pipeline and this one federal approval process, other pipelines are being built all over the country, literally in our own backyards. While stopping Keystone XL obviously has importance to both the environment as a whole and especially those who are individually affected by it, stopping this one pipeline will not halt nor reverse the consistent damage that industrial capitalism is wreaking upon the earth. It’s the entire destructive system that needs to be stopped.
I wish I could be more hopeful, but unless and until the industrialized nations of this planet collectively decide to radically alter how they produce and consume fossil fuels, and until the people decide that the ability to live on this planet is more important than engaging in a never-ending cycle of producing and consuming, all the effort put into stopping individual projects like Keystone XL will be in vain.
John Halstead, Managing Editor of HumanisticPaganism.com and organizing member of the working group for the Draft Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, wrote:
I applaud the President’s veto and the work done by groups like 350.org that have opposed the pipeline, recognizing that there is still work to be done to oppose the pipeline. But as important as this victory is, it is the tip of an iceberg, one which expands to include an unsustainable system of resource extraction and consumption, which is rapidly making the earth uninhabitable for human beings, as it has already been made uninhabitable for countless species. [This] expands further to include an economic model — global capitalism — which has failed in its promise to reflect the true value of that which is consumed, and expands still further (largely beneath the surface of our consciousness) to include a spiritual hegemony which alienates human beings from the material source of our being and from all life. We must attack this iceberg at all of these levels; at the points of consumption, production and destruction (economics), the point of decision (politics), and the point of assumption (ideology/religion).
Whether the veto stops construction completely or simply delays it, there are currently other pipelines in operation, as noted by Valkyrie and Beckett. This includes the other TransCanada lines that make the trip from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. In order to end oil sands operations entirely, there must be a collective shift in our relationship with energy use. In addition, there must be a simultaneous and significant economic shift to prevent a catastrophic structural social collapse. Our world economies are deeply tied to the current energy industry, its operations and its products. This is a complicated venture that will require far more than a single piece of legislation, as suggested by Halstead and others interviewed.
However, this presidential veto may be a sign that the global conversation is evolving from “do it, but do it cleaner” to “don’t do it at all.” As is often discussed, those people who follow environmentally-centered religious practices may now have unique place in helping to shift this conversation. Beckett said:
One of the core principles of modern Druidry is that the Earth is sacred. The value of the Earth does not come from the benefits it provides to humans. Rather, the Earth is a living thing and it has the same inherent value and worth as all other living things. Druids seek to live in a respectful and reverent relationship with the Earth.
Halstead echoed that sentiment:
It is in this last area that I believe Pagans have the most unique contribution to make to this fight. We can lead the way in effecting paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. We need to personally and collectively cultivate the spiritual and psychological resources to sustain us for a prolonged struggle on all of these fronts.