The White House officially rejected the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on Friday Nov. 6, causing tree-huggers everywhere to celebrate—or at least share articles on social media. While many are calling the decision a “huge win” for environmentalists, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about its true impact. Keystone XL would have formed a branch of the existing Keystone Pipeline, which is owned by TransCanada. The pipeline would have transported crude oil across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, which would necessitate construction over many miles of land and virtually ensure the outbreak of a spate of small manmade disasters.
President Barack Obama’s decision to reject Keystone XL comes after several years of deliberation and a State Department proclamation that the pipeline would have few long-term benefits for the United States economy anyway. It does not take a hopeless cynic to realize that this decision was, above all, motivated by economic rather than environmental factors. It hardly even has the “symbolic” significance many environmental leaders are attributing to it.
Meanwhile, the existing parts of the Keystone Pipeline are already pumping dirty Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta all the way down to Texas. Though the Keystone XL addition would have added our own crude into the mix, we still have oil coming through the pipes either way. Additionally, the decision not to expand the pipeline will probably mean more oil transported in the United States via truck or train, which is particularly dangerous.
The problem is that we haven’t replaced the oil with anything. Borders are just lines on maps; the planet doesn’t care whether its last remaining fossil fuels are being squeezed out of Canada or the United States. Either way, if American thirst for oil remains what it is today, the earth will end up as a shriveled husk.
During the Keystone XL announcement, Obama talked a lot about how the United States is “leading on climate change” and implementing clean energy solutions. That is not just incredibly idealistic; it is incorrect.
Germany recently set a target for 45 percent renewable energy by 2030, while Norway heats homes and schools by incinerating garbage that would have otherwise sat unable to biodegrade in landfills. Along with several other European and South American nations, these countries are leaders in green energy and every single one of them still has a long way to go. Meanwhile, America lags behind and will continue to do so as long as the oil and gas companies continue to own the government.
To make matters worse, Keystone XL is far from dead. When people as powerful as fossil fuel backers are involved, no backdoor political maneuver is off the table. Even assuming the rejection holds, however, it simply will not make an impact to match the buzz around it—not by itself.
Though constructing the pipeline would have undeniably been a disaster for wildlife, indigenous people, farmers, ranchers and homeowners, not constructing it solves nothing when the status quo is callous environmental destruction and overconsumption.
By supporting green companies and switching off the grid to solar or another form of renewable energy, consumers can vote with their dollars, making that decision appear more practical. Transforming our economy so that clean energy is a source of both electric and political power is the only way to affect change that is neither accidental nor insignificant.
Obama finished his announcement Friday Nov. 6 with an optimistic nod to the World Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris in December. With any luck, some more substantial environmental victories will come out of that conference.
Until then, the Keystone XL decision gets a thumbs-up—but only a tentative one.