Could We Win the Keystone XL Battle But Still Lose the Tar Sands War?

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The Vietnam War might seem irrelevant to the environmental movement’s five-year effort to stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that, if approved by President Obama, would bring tar sands oil from Alberta to the Texas coast for refining and shipment overseas. But the more I look at the situation, the more I see worrisome similarities. Both American war planners and environmental movement leaders made the same strategic mistake: conceptualizing transportation as a single fixed conduit that could be readily shut down with decisive consequences for the entire conflict.

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The Central Highlands of Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a ‘strategical’ focal point during the Vietnam War. Photo credit: Nathan Nelson /Flickr

From 1965 to 1972 American civilian and military war managers launched a massive aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam’s transportation system. If the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” leading from North Vietnam into Laos and from there into South Vietnam could be severed, then Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army forces would run of supplies and replacement troops. For the American strategists, it was as if the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the Vietnamese equivalent of an interstate highway with complex entrances and exits, bridges, and other vulnerable choke points. Just as air strikes by jet fighter-bombers would surely cripple American highways and bring our economy to a halt, a few thousand bombing attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail would end the war. Or so the “thinking” went.

Although this image of the Ho Chi Minh trail resonated with American sensibilities, no single roadway by that name existed. Instead, a vast network of modest roads—some medium-sized, some small, some tiny—and many different river crossings, camouflaged fuel dumps and truck parks comprised the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This network could not be bombed out of existence, not by a few thousand air strikes or even a few hundred thousand. By the end of 1967 the Central Intelligence Agency quit making recommendations on bombing targets, convinced that no level of attack against the transportation system could stop supplies moving south.

Like the Americans’ image of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a single superhighway, the environmental movement has conceptualized Keystone XL as the single path for Alberta tar sands oil, a 1,179-mile conduit capable of shipping 830,000 barrels a day. If Keystone XL can be stopped, then the tar sands mines won’t be able to expand, avoiding tremendous CO2 emissions and keeping global warming within a two degree centigrade increase—thus maintaining the world as we know it. Climate change activist Bill McKibben and scientist James Hansen sent out the call to duty. First thousands, then tens of thousands of Americans have marched and rallied, staged sit-ins and been arrested outside the White House, chained themselves to construction equipment, and sent zillions of emails to politicians. The environmental movement has fought the good fight. It’s too early to tell, but it just might win.

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Graphic courtesy of Climate Progress.

But even if environmentalists win the battle against Keystone XL, they could lose the bigger war against exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. On March 20, reporter Katie Valentine and graphic designer Andrew Breiner posted a report at Climate Progress that calls into question the whole Keystone XL campaign. The headline says it all: “While America Spars Over Keystone XL, A Vast Network of Pipelines Is Quietly Being Approved.”

In their own way, Valentine and Breiner resemble Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo of Pentagon Papers fame: they both change the paradigm for viewing a protracted conflict. An additional 10 pipelines that can potentially ship tar sands oil west to British Columbia on the Pacific Coast, south to the Texas Gulf Coast, or east to Quebec and the Atlantic Coast are now under review. Many of these pipelines are already built and permitted; they simply need a need an additional new permit to change flow direction and/or change the type of petroleum being shipped. Collectively these 10 pipelines can carry far more oil than Keystone XL by itself.

The environmental movement appears not to have grasped that Keystone XL was but one possible pipeline among many. Like the American war planners, we envisioned a single conduit that could be stopped. Even if the Obama Administration denies Keystone XL the permits it needs, within a few years much more oil from the Alberta tar-sands will almost certainly move onto the global market.

Climate activists should have anticipated the oil industry’s efforts toward a work-around. Their apparent failure to do so represents a major strategic failure. Some have argued that the movement’s extensive opposition created new public awareness about the threat of climate change: Keystone XL became a readily understood icon—something concrete—that embodied a much more abstract idea, climate change. However, a February ABC News/Washington Post public opinion survey found that 65 percent of Americans favored construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, while only 22 percent opposed it, a three to one margin. That seems like a public education defeat to me.

What’s needed now is an autopsy, a look at why we could not imagine the possibility that Alberta oil would find other outlets, a look at why so many Americans did not find the stop-the-pipeline story compelling. What’s also needed is a consideration of other possible strategies, in particular a tax on all carbon fuels. The tar sands oil, once taxed on the basis of its carbon emissions, would cost more in comparison to other oil supplies. Given Republican and conservative Democrats’ hold on both the House and Senate, no such carbon tax is likely to become law in the near future. But in terms of environmental education and as a potential organizing tool, a carbon tax offers a simple lesson people might find valuable: the market price for fossil fuels does not capture its full total price. Instead, the public is forced to pay for environmental damages lasting indefinitely and that’s not fair.

In the meantime, it unfortunately appears that—no matter what happens with Keystone XL—there are other tar sands pipeline battles still to come. The question then becomes: How much movement energy should go into each of these pipeline struggles, and how much effort should go into building new, broader coalitions to push other approaches.

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