keystone protest
Emma Cassidy

There was a bit of buzz last week when the august scientific journal Nature endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline (ironically, in the course of pleading with Obama to do something about climate change). Despite the hubbub, it was not the first time the journal had done so. Back in September 2011, it boosted Keystone … in the context of pleading with Obama do to something about climate change. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Neither editorial makes a fully fleshed-out case for Keystone, but together they advance three common arguments, all of which I find unconvincing.

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1. The tar sands will get dug up anyway.

This is the most familiar argument on behalf of Keystone, though “we can’t prevent this horrible thing so let’s embrace it” is a peculiar form of endorsement.

I don’t get it. The world is not a spreadsheet. It contains friction, physical and temporal limitations, politics and competing interests. Nothing is inevitable.

If activists can block Keystone, yeah, there are other possible routes to get the tar-sands oil out. So … activists will fight those, too. Tar-sands producers want to ship the stuff west? Well, there’s the small matter of a wall of First Nations opposition (and in Canada, unlike the U.S., indigenous tribes have real political power). They want to ship the tar sands east? Well, there’s a coalition of enviro groups fighting that too, pulling together some impressively large rallies. They want to ship the tar sands by train, to avoid all these pipeline protests? Well, that’s more expensive and more dangerous and there isn’t nearly enough rail capacity right now to handle it.

Without Keystone XL, oil sands face choke point,” says the Globe & Mail. In this collection of quotes [PDF] pulled together by, oil industry analysts and executives acknowledge that without Keystone, tar-sands oil could be stranded, or at least severely constrained.

Of course there’s no guarantee activists can bottle up the tar sands until governments get serious about climate change. It’s a huge, difficult fight — most worthwhile fights are! But there’s also no guarantee they will fail. Economists and Very Serious People keep telling the movement that it can’t stop the tar sands entirely. The only sensible response is, “F*ck you. Watch me.”

2. Some other unconventional fuels are even dirtier.

This is what Nature said in its 2011 editorial:

It is true that greenhouse-gas emissions from oil extracted from the sands are 15–20% higher than those from average crude oil if assessed on a life-cycle basis, but industry officials are correct in pointing out that this is on a par with other dirty oils produced in the United States and elsewhere using steam injection.

It’s hard to know how to respond to this. Is the argument supposed to be that you can’t fight bad thing X unless you also fight bad thing Y? You must fight things in order, from worst to least bad? Two wrongs make a right?

It is true that filthy unconventional fuels are being extracted all over the place. And it is true that some of those fuels are dirtier than tar sands. But so what? As I’ve said many times, wonk logic and activist logic are different. A wonk ranks fossil fuel projects by tons of carbon per unit of energy. An activist looks for opportunities to break through the news cycle, to force confrontation, to create a symbol, to build a movement. Neither logic trumps the other.

Like it or not, Keystone has become a symbol. What will it symbolize?

3. Keystone approval can “build credibility” or serve as a bargaining chip.

Of all the pro-Keystone arguments, this is the most irksome and muddleheaded. There are many variations. Here’s how Nature puts it:

By approving Keystone, Obama can bolster his credibility within industry and among conservatives. The president can also take advantage of rising domestic oil and gas production to defuse concerns over energy security. And the fact that US emissions are apparently dropping, thanks to the economic crisis and the ongoing shift from coal to gas for electricity generation as well as state and federal policies, further plays into his hands.

Ah, the endless quest of the center left to give things away to “bolster credibility.” I wrote a whole post about this — “credibility is like a rainbow” — so I won’t write it all again. Suffice to say, Obama cut taxes for almost every American, presided over a massive expansion in oil and gas production (during a sharp decline in carbon emissions), deported millions of illegal immigrants, killed Osama bin Laden, and cut the deficit by almost half. Guess how much support and credibility it has gotten him among conservatives? That’s right: none.

The same goes for the idea floating around that Obama could “trade” Keystone approval for tough EPA regs on carbon. This kind of gentleman’s agreement, beloved by VSPs and wonks, just isn’t how U.S. politics works anymore. There are no brokers, no referees. There’s nobody in the GOP leadership who can contain the far right and bring them to the table. There are no deals. There are only fights. Not everyone has to like it — few people do! — but at this point, there’s no excuse for not recognizing it.

Even if bipartisanship were possible in U.S. politics as a rule, as a matter of tactics the right sees energy — particularly Keystone and EPA — as one of its winning issues. It wants a fight on energy. It’s not going to put down the pitchfork and make deals at the expense of an issue it intends to demagogue in 2014.

Giving up Keystone is giving up Keystone. That’s it. There is no “credibility with conservatives” or grand bargain waiting at the end of the rainbow.

If I had to predict, I would guess Obama will approve the pipeline. When VSPs are lined up on one side and DFHs on the other, DFHs tend to lose. It’s why arguments for Keystone don’t need to be particularly strong. VSPs have power and money on their side.

Steep odds, however, are not cause for the movement to give up. If it were easy, there would be no need for a movement. Steep odds are a call for sweat and blood, passion and ingenuity. Knowing what we now know about climate change, it is simply immoral to tap large new sources of fossil fuels. We’ve got to start leaving the damn stuff in the ground.