If approved, the pipeline will slice through America’s heartland, putting birds, such as sandhill cranes, at risk. ©John Thomas Andrews

On January 31, 2014, the State Department released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement of the Keystone XL pipeline in an 11-volume publication. The proposed pipeline segment would carry heavy oil from Canada’s tar sands across Nebraska and five other states to refineries in Texas. The report concluded that, though the tar sands have a somewhat larger carbon footprint than other sources of oil, the pipeline was unlikely to affect the rate at which the oil is extracted; in other words, one way or another, it would find its way to market.

Opponents of the pipeline are worried that this conclusion satisfies one of President Obama’s criteria for approving the project: that it not significantly exacerbate climate change problems. So if environmentalists lose the Keystone XL pipeline battle, what will that mean for other efforts to slow human-caused climate change?

The Keystone XL pipeline battle

The Keystone XL pipeline is a 1,664-mile project that would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day—most of it from Canada’s oil sands—to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. The pipeline has two segments: the 1,179-mile northern leg between Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Oklahoma, which still requires a presidential permit; and the 485-mile southern leg known as the “Gulf Coast pipeline” between Steele City and Port Arthur, Texas, which was completed in 2013 and is now operating.

The existing and proposed segments of the Keystone XL pipeline run throughout the full length of the U.S. ©Laris Karklis, “The Washington Post.” Updated January 31, 2014.

If approved, the northern leg of the pipeline will slice through America’s agricultural heartland; the Missouri, Niobrara and Platte Rivers; and the Ogallala aquifer, habitat for sage grouse, sandhill cranes, walleye fisheries and much more. Environmentalists worry that public water supplies, croplands and recreational opportunities will all be at risk of dangerous tar sands oil spills, such as the million-gallon Enbridge oil spill in Michigan.

President Obama is now faced with the political difficulty of forbidding a commercial enterprise for “symbolic reasons,” given the State Department’s conclusions. According to that agency’s final numbers, in terms of carbon emissions, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline would be equivalent to stopping the construction of somewhere between half a coal-fired power plant and half a dozen, at a time when China has been building dozens a year. In other words, the pipeline would exacerbate the human-caused climate change problem only incrementally—perhaps significantly, depending on your point of view—but it would not be a game changer for the planet. And, if it’s not built, the oil will get to market anyway, by some other means.

Added to the State Department’s official report, proponents of the pipeline project say that it would promote U.S. energy independence and create jobs, contentions echoed on TransCanada’s own website: the “Keystone XL Pipeline will be the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America. It will not only bring essential infrastructure to North American oil producers, but it will also provide jobs, long-term energy independence and an economic boost to Americans.”

The real war we need to fight is against human-caused climate change. The Keystone XL pipeline is just one piece of that battle. ©Kayana Szymczak, flickr

Despite the fact that the State Department report found the pipeline would create only 42,000 temporary construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs, a PEW Research Center poll taken last fall found that 65 percent of Americans—including 51 percent of Democrats—support the pipeline.

It would seem that environmentalists might have picked the wrong battle. If they can’t halt it after five years of pouring resources into trying to mobilize the public against the pipeline, then what project can be stopped?

The larger, climate-change war

Global energy policy expert at the University of California at Davis Amy Myers Jaffe says that by making the Keystone XL pipeline a litmus test, the environmental movement has drawn a line in the sand—dangerous because then you’re stuck with that line. And Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, cautions against overemphasizing the pipeline, stating that the real war is human-caused climate change. The Keystone XL pipeline is just one piece of that fight.

The pipeline would “bisect America’s last great swath of grassland.” ©John Thomas Andrews

In response to the January 31 release of the final environmental impact assessment by the U.S. Department of State, Todd Shelton, World Wildlife Fund’s vice president for U.S. government relations, said: “The implications of building the Keystone XL pipeline go beyond climate change. It would accelerate fragmentation of a globally important ecosystem, bisecting America’s last great swath of grassland, home to a diversity of wildlife unique to this region. The project not only would degrade and fragment wildlife habitat, it would also open the door to accelerating oil and gas development and the potentially devastating impacts of pipeline spills, which are all too common.”

The sage grouse, sandhill cranes and walleye would probably agree.

Do you think that fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline is a lost cause? Should environmentalists focus their efforts and resources on larger, global issues?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,