Keystone Rejected, Big Carbon Undaunted


November 29, 2015

by Paul Street


Watch: Dec 2, 2015: “Oil glut so bad people are putting it back in the ground.”


The Masters of Oil are not stupid.

Some time ago, I suggested in one of my many critiques of the corporate-neoliberal, imperial, and eco-cidal Obama administration that Obama’s ultimate signing off on the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL) – meant to carry highly toxic Tar Sands oil from Alberta, Canada the Gulf of Mexico in the southern U.S. – was a foregone conclusion. As of last November 6th, I stand corrected on the specific policy in question, but not on the underlying corporate-captive and environmentally lethal nature of the administration. Here as in so many other areas the Obama story remains the same: fake-progressive symbolism cloaks deadly state-capitalist substance.

Why did a president who has opened up vast swaths of US coast line and the environmentally hyper-sensitive Chukchi Sea to deep-water oil drilling, who signed off on the southern branch of Keystone, and who has openly celebrated the nation’s ecologically disastrous hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) boom say no to KXL? Given his broader, Big Oil-friendly environmental record, his claim to have turned the pipeline down out of concern for the ravages of climate change does not pass the smell test. It should not be taken seriously.

The deeper reality is colored by two very basic facts.  First, Obama had no choice.  The large and fairly mainstream anti-climate change protest movement that had arisen against KXL, the upcoming Paris climate summit, and global opinion calling for serious climate action put the slimy Obama administration between (kind of like the North American gas and oil whose fracking-based extraction the president has heralded) a rock and hard place.  How could he go to Paris and credibly advance the U.S. petro-imperial agenda against serous and binding global carbon emission and extraction limits with a Keystone yoke around his neck, placed there in part by high-profile climate change opponents like Bill McKibben and James Hansen? Obama’s  ability to claim moral and political authority in Paris required making McKibben – leader of the anti-climate change organization “” – happy on Keystone.

Secondly and just as important, the Big Carbon capitalist elite is not stupid and has been preparing for the eventuality the Obama would be unable to sign off on KXL. It has invested in alternatives. As the leading environmental activist Jay Thomas Taber notes, “Delaying KXL…merely means the Tar Sands toxic bitumen will make its way to the Gulf of Mexico by other routes, which incidentally are already operating, making KXL redundant for now–the real reason for the celebrated KXL ‘rejection’” The KXL’s non-approval “no longer matters to oil exporters” thanks to a glut of oil reaching the Gulf from millions of acres of land Obama opened up in 23 U.S. states for the great American fracking surge and thanks to “plans to develop pipeline and oil train terminal infrastructure on the West Coast of Canada and the Northwest US.”

The KXL’s difficulties have incidentally proved a boon for the world’s third richest person and (curiously enough) a leading financial contributor (through the Tides Foundation) to McKibben’s organization.  Buffett owns Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), which carries U.S. and Canadian oil and gas across North America. As “The Insider” (pseudonym for an activist employed in the U.S. foundation sector) noted three and a half years ago: “the tar sands oil will be transported with or without KXL…This is due to the fact that one of President Obama’s most loyal billionaire patrons, Warren Buffett …owns.. BNSF,[which] has the capacity and will to rail morebarrels of tar sands crude per day to the U.S. than does the Keystone XL.”

The leading environmental reporter and activist Steve Horn notes that “for years behind the scenes – as most media attention and activist energy has gone into fighting Keystone XL North – the Obama Administration has quietly been approving hundreds of miles-long pieces of pipeline owned by industry goliath Enbridge and other companies.…That pipeline system does the very same thing the rest of TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline System at-large also already does [without KXL]… it brings Alberta’s tar sands oil across the heartland of the U.S. and down to the U.S. Gulf coast.”

Along the way, Obama has quietly signed off on – and expedited through executive order – the building of every other pipeline not named Keystone XL. “While people have been debating Keystone,” the head of the American Oil Pipeline Association recently crowed, “we have actually built the equivalent of 10 Keystones. And no one’s complained or said anything.”

Keystone was not intended only to carry dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf.  It was also meant to carry oil extracted in the giant, glowing fracking fields of North Dakota. All that oil is easily shipped through existing and planned pipelines, rail, and trucking lines.

The big capitalist masters of oil extraction, shipping, and refining can easily handle the suspension of KXL. They know that Obama’s action doesn’t really interrupt their project of turning the world into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber.

That’s the second main reason that the deeply conservative Obama made his fake-progressive legacy-burnishing move. He was on safe capitalist ground. It’s not unlike Obama’s recent symbolic posturing and policy half-gestures on racist mass incarceration, dependent on the fact that the nation’s bipartisan elite has already decided that America’s monumental imprisonment of poor and nonwhite Americans may have finally reached the outer limits of profitable functionality.

“To celebrate this individual event of Keystone XL,” Forrest Palmer and Cory Morningstar remind us at Wrong Kind of Green, “is shortsighted. It is time to stop celebrating individual battles when we are losing the war” to save livable ecology.

The former Reagan administration Assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts recently opined that “revolution throughout the West” is one possible outcome for the current neoliberal capitalist assault on decent living standards, healthy food, and environmental health. “Once…the French people discover that they have lost all control over their diet to Monsanto and American agribusiness,” Roberts muses, “members of the French government that delivered France into dietary bondage to toxic foods are likely to be killed in the streets….Events of this sort are possible throughout the West as people discover that they have lost all control over every aspect of their lives and that their only choice is revolution or death.”

With the ever more horrid assault on livable ecology being advanced by the U.S. and global petro-capitalist ruling class through various means but especially via anthropogenic – really capitalogenic– global warming, perhaps the time is right for the French masses to hit the streets and build barricades again in the spirit of 1789-1795. On November 30th, the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (“COP21”) begins in Paris with the goal of making an international agreement to keep global warming below 2°C.

Here is a chilling (no pun intended) dispatch from left author Richard Greeman in Montpellier, reflecting on the French government’s response to the recent terrible Islamic State terror attacks in Paris: “The Hollande government…[is] already preparing to prevent mass demonstrations and other outdoor activities during the upcoming climate summit, allowing the ‘deciders’ to continue to cook the planet in peace.” How perfectly Orwellian: the Islamic State is largely a result of the monumentally criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq, an action that was driven largely by Washington’s desire to control the oil fields of Mesopotamia.


[Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA.]


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