The Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL, and Unintended Consequences of Activism

The Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL –

By Matt Palmer

This opinion piece by Joe Nocera came out a few days ago in the NY Times. It is an interesting analysis of the politicization of the Keystone Pipeline debate. The stakes in the push to get Keystone XL and Northern Gateway approved are arguably huge for the Canadian energy industry. The bigger impact here is how environmental groups are learning how to succeed at shutting down major energy infrastructure projects.

As it turns out, the environmental movement doesn’t just want to shut down Keystone.  Its real goal, as I discovered when I spoke recently to Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, is much bigger.  “The effort to stop Keystone is part of a broader effort to stop the expansion of the tar sands,” Brune said.  “It is based on choking off the ability to find markets for tar sands oil.”

Environmental groups now see a pathway to not just slowing oil sands development, but to keep the oil sands in the ground altogether. This is a significant development. Success would have major implications, but there is another danger in what has happened with how environmentalists were able to stop the Keystone decision from happening before the election.

Developing oil sands and building pipelines are just one facet of the energy picture in North America. As an example of one of the dangers of energy activism one need look no further than what is happening with big wind projects, and the growing strength of the anti-wind movement. I’m not advocating one way or the other on these issues, rather my point is that the pipelines, and the anti-wind movements point to potential roadblocks to major energy project development anywhere. People have seen that speaking up and gathering group momentum can be enough to stop or slow development of unwanted energy projects. This will apply to oil sands, wind, solar, hydro dams, and nuclear plants.

The electrical transmission system in North America is aging and needs to be replaced. For example, the building of major wind farms requires building new transmission lines. Landowners and communities that are fighting some of these projects are going pick up on the tactics that were successful for the anti-Keystone groups.

Our energy needs are great, and as we look to transition our energy systems and infrastructure so we are less reliant on fossil fuels, we are going to face some major battles  just getting these necessary systems approved and then built. Battling a pipeline based on environmental concerns may lead to fighting against the industrialization of wind and solar, because some of these projects are developed in environmentally sensitive areas, or even your own backyard. I’m not arguing that wind or solar, or transmission lines have the same risk as an oil pipeline, only that people fight against these things for reasons that are valid for them: impacts that they view as being unpleasant and indefensible.

Activism is important and has a place in our system. But understand that nothing comes for free. Will environmental activism lead to the inability to develop any major form of energy infrastructure?

I’m adding to this post an article I found this morning, a response to Joe Nocera.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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