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Environmentalists Could Win the Keystone XL Battle and Still Lose the War

Will the KXL fight be environmentalists’ Vietnam?

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.

photo of a tropical mountain scene, forest and trailphoto by Nathan Nelson on FlickrThe Central Highlands of Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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 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.

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 by itself.

graphic map of the middle of North America depicting many pipelines traversing the land

The environmental movement appears not to have grasped that Keystone 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 3 to 1 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?

James William Gibson
James William Gibson writes regularly for Earth Island Journal. Among his books is The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1986).

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Maybe it’s because I used to teach college level history. And wrote my master’s thesis on the Vietnam wars. Or maybe it’s because I’m part of environmental and climate movements facing off with the most powerful industry in the history of the world, but this analogy is insulting and is perpetuating a lot of right wing myths not only about the war, but also about today’s anti-KXL movement.

Comparing the environmental movement with war planners like Johnson and McNamara, and Nixon and Kissinger? The U.S. was huge and powerful, the Vietnamese fast and nimble. The U.S. lost lots of the battles, not just the war.

Big Oil is huge and powerful. The environmental establishment… not so much.

You might want to go back and re-read some of the history. Gabriel Kolko, Marilyn Young and Bob Buzzanco all have important works on this.

By Scott Parkin on Wed, April 16, 2014 at 11:50 am

I am amazed at the number of editorial writers just now discovering that there are more than one planned outlet for production from the boreal forests.
This fact has long been known by the oil companies and environmentalists.
It is not an either/or proposition, it is cumulative…and each has it’s own challenges.  These other pipelines (and rail) have always been planned, as they reach different markets.
“All of the above” is needed if full extraction of these tar sands is to be economical.
There are two basic environmental concerns about KXLII:  1) Site specific concerns about pipes and emminent domain grabs and aquifers and spills and petcoke tailings are directly addressed by KXL!! denial;  2) Climate concerns, which are addressed by limiting the cumulative extraction volume and rate of extraction from the boreal forest. (There are other concerns about deforestation and the impact on residents of northern Canada including the First Nations also adressed in this category.)
The amount of pressure, and money spent, by producers promoting KXLII is evidence enough that this project is significant.  The Canadian citizenry is not thrilled about pipes on their home soil. The other pipelines include at least two crossings of the US border which the US government and citizens will need to approve.
KXLII is the cheapest and fastest way to increase oil sands production hence the opposition.  Without KXLII there is question about how much production is economical, particularly given projections of crude prices below $75 in the next five years.
The different pipe and rail options are cumulative not exclusive so stopping KXLII would be a huge step to limiting boreal forest destruction, pushing the US refiners toward processing domestic oil, and not undermining alternative fuels.
Canada will need to make it’s own peace with the difference between their lofty statements on climate and their rush to export tar sands.  They don’t need US complicity, which will undermine US efforts to work toward limiting climate change.

By VTROOTS on Wed, April 16, 2014 at 11:40 am

What so many people forget (or never knew) is that the United States already uses a lot of very heavy oil, especially from Venezuela, Mexico and California.  The decades-old refineries along the Gulf Coast were designed to refine heavy oil.  Those refineries are having difficulty processing the light sweet (low sulfur) oil being produced in increasing quantitites from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Wyoming. It’s like putting gasoline in a diesel-fueled automobile.  That’s why it makes sense to flow the Canadian oil sands oil south to Houston refineries and send the lighter Bakken oil to the East Coast refineries, which were designed to handle lighter oils, or to export that oil to foreign refineries built to process lighter oils.  Current law prohibits such exports, but that law just reinforces uneconomic use of natural resources.  It also supports gasoline prices of 4 bucks a gallon.

By John Jennrich on Tue, April 15, 2014 at 1:12 pm

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