The Keystone XL Pipeline: Coming to Terms and Demanding the Impossible

By NICK ESTES

As the mass demonstrations and opposition to the construction of TransCanadas 1,200-mile Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline project mount, key concern has been paid to the serious environmental and social risks the KXL pipeline poses. The recent State Department publication of the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project (EIS) has raised important objections as to the validity and potential outcomes of the construction or non-construction of KXL. But what is at stake? More importantly, what does the EIS say about the current and future world of oil-dependence? If we take look a close look at the EIS, we can begin to understand that much more than construction of pipelines is at stake if we are to begin to imagine an oil-free future.

Proposed KXL route
The proposed KXL Pipeline’s 1,200-mile route would connect Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, NE. This graphic shows the only the proposed U.S. route.

Many have recently revealed the inherent fallacy or “conflict of interest”of the EIS as a “balanced”and “objective”assessment of the proposed KXL pipeline project. Specifically, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the consulting firm that helped research and write the 2014 EIS, has been accused of foul play and conflict of interest as a contractor for TransCanada, the company hired to build the KXL pipeline. This controversy sheds light on the fact that state-contracted consulting firms, not just firms that are contracted for environmental assessment, often sleep in the same bed with the corporate firms they are supposed to objectively evaluate. This is common practice frequently referred to as “regulatory capture”—or the hiring of state regulators to superintend the very industries they once worked for.

These state environmental regulators, supposedly working in the public interest, hold regulatory responsibility over industries responsible for the worst kinds of environmental catastrophes. Take, for instance, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, which pumped an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The so-called state regulatory agency responsible for offshore oil drilling, Mineral Management Service, contracted through the Department of Interior, established a revenue-in-kind service to cash-in on oil and gas revenues for federal leases. Many employees of Mineral Management Service and its subsidiaries were also former employees of the oil industry and frequently benefited from federal leases for oil and gas extraction. As a result, they frequently allowed drilling platforms to write their own inspection reports, which many attribute to the systemic and technical failure of Deepwater Horizon.

Despite these egregious examples of regulatory bias and mismanagement, we should not dismiss ERM and the EIS report out of hand. Instead, we should acknowledge the biases of the EIS and read them for what they are—strategic assessment plans that are solely interested in the proliferation and sustainment of oil economies, markets, and, more importantly, oil-dependent futures. The transformation of oil markets from foreign dependency to domestic production, especially crude oil transported from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), located in the Canadian province of Alberta, and the Bakken Shale Formation (BSF), located in the U.S. states of Montana and North Dakota and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, is the stated overall goal, not the construction of pipelines. Despite the political expediency of this foreign-to-domestic logic, the real goal is to externalize the costs and risks of KXL. Securing a domestic market is simply a ruse for displacing the serious social and environmental risks of oil transportation and production. Whether or not the pipeline is built, the EIS makes clear, existing infrastructure will be utilized; the EIS clearly states, “rail will be able to accommodate new [oil sand] production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed.

By externalizing the costs, I mean that the proposed KXL pipeline will place vulnerable and precarious populations and environments at risk by utilizing existing infrastructurerailways, roads, and already existing pipelinesto transport the oil sands. In other words, we take all the risk. We can see this reality unfolding in the already catastrophic rail transportation oil spills that have occurred. As production increases, pipeline or not, more existing infrastructure will be revolutionized and adapted to meet market demands.

The 2010 U.S. rail oil loading facilities near the BSF and the unloading facilities in Oklahoma and Louisiana.
The 2010 U.S. rail oil loading facilities near the BSF and the unloading facilities in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Click to enlarge.
The proposed and existing (as of 2013) loading and unloading facilities (by both rail and barge transportation) that have sprung up in the last three years. Most of these facilities transport oil sands extracted from the WCSB and the BSF. Click to enlarge.
The proposed and existing (as of 2013) loading and unloading facilities (by both rail and barge transportation) that have sprung up in the last three years. Most of these facilities transport oil sands extracted from the WCSB and the BSF. Click to enlarge.

For example, as of 2013, Canadian railways transport 180,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil. In the proposed architecture of crude oil production from WCSB and BSF, this amount is a drop in the bucket for overall (and projected) oil sands production (or crude oil). The projected market analysis of U.S. domestic oil production, transportation, and refinement estimates that the 2010 5.5 million bpd, the 2012 6.5 million bpd, and the 2013 7.5 million bpd will be significantly higher in 2014 and beyond, thus requiring infrastructural adjustments and new construction (i.e., the KXL pipeline) or an overhaul of existing infrastructure (i.e., railway and barge transportation). The proposed 1,200 miles of pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska is merely an attempt to offset TransCanada’s transportation costs to refinement facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, which suggests KXL is not about developing domestic markets but externalizing the costs and risks for oil companies already engaged in extraction and production.

Existing KXL Pipeline, or the Gulf Coast Project Pipeline, stretches from Cushing, OK to Houston and Port Arthur, TX. The Gulf Coast Project Pipeline was completed in 2011.
Existing KXL Pipeline, or the Gulf Coast Project Pipeline, stretches from Cushing, OK to Houston and Port Arthur, TX. The Gulf Coast Project Pipeline was completed in 2011.

We cannot ignore these projections. They demonstrate that the proposed $3.3 billion KXL pipeline project is not a trump card for establishing efficient and productive domestic oil markets, but instead a prescribed inevitability of petro-capitalism as common sense reality—something that, as much as it is taken for granted, is the prescribed future of domestic dependence on oil production and consumption.

To defuse the inevitability of an oil-dependent energy and imagine something beyond pipelines, petrol economies, and most insidiously global environmental collapse, we need to understand the capitalist and colonialist systems and processes that perpetuate these oil-dependent fidelities.

Land

If we start our inquiry with the WSCB, we will arrive at our most prized and primed real estate for capitalist and colonialist exploitation—Indigenous land. Canadian colonial powers wrested control and possession of what is now known as the territory of Alberta from Dene and Cree First Nations and “settled”land claims through treaties and established mineral claims on Indigenous lands.

These FirstNations, among others, historically lay claim to the WSCB area where the oil sands production began in 1967. The production of the WSCB has mainly served the interests of U.S. oil market demands, since most of it finds its way to the Gulf Coast refinement facilities in Texas. This relationship is revealing in that it exposes the myth of the seemingly magical appearance of energy in the US; most, if not all, productive capacities of the U.S. and Canada depend on the violent dispossession of Indigenous land. This is the matter-of-fact reality of the colonial-capital relations of production—or what has been dubiously called “settlement”and “development.”

Infrastructure

The WSCB oil sands play a significant role in creating the ruse of “domestic”energy resources, a tagline fraught with externalized risks and costs. Despite this, the EIS posits that the solution to our energy woes is weaning our economy from foreign dependency. Folding the BSF oil sands production into this arrangement has given legitimacy to a mass-scaled industrial energy production circuitry, currently dependent upon existing infrastructure for transportation and existing energy resources for extraction. Whether or not the KXL pipeline is built, this mass-scaled industrial energy production circuitry will find a way to deliver the goods.

The assumption is that oil-dependent and oil-driven energy markets are here to stay and innovative technologies, transportation, and market schemes are the modus operandi of big oil. The EIS directs us to believe that if the proposed KXL pipeline is not constructed market dynamics will invent new ways of perpetuating this economy, since it is not just domestic but in fact international concerns that will make these markets produce and prosper: “The dominant drivers of oil sands development are more global than any single infrastructure project. Oil sands production and investment could slow or accelerate depending on oil price trends, regulations, and technological developments, but the potential effects of these factors on the industry’s rate of expansion should not be conflated with the more limited effects of individual pipelines. (Emphasis added)

Labor and Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous peoples and lands have always been the risk that capitalism and colonialism have been willing to bet against. Historically, we (Indigenous peoples) have always been the limb upon which capitalist-colonialist futures hedges its bets, waiting for it to break.

The EIS acknowledges that 17 percent of the proposed pipeline route intersects with low-income or minority populations in what it calls “pipeline corridor counties,”namely two Native nations: the Sicangu Oyate and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The report estimates that 263,300 people will be directly affected by pipeline construction, that 42,100 U.S. jobs will be created in the course of its projected two-year construction but only 50 permanent U.S. jobs for maintenance and contracting. Moreover, the EIS promises $5.5 million for “pipeline corridor counties”in property tax revenue.

Office of Pipeline Safety (PHMSA) incident table, 2002-2012, shows the number of spills and "incidents" (there is no distinction) of currently existing oil pipelines in the U.S.
Office of Pipeline Safety (PHMSA) incident table, 2002-2012, shows the number of spills and “incidents” (there is no distinction) of currently existing oil pipelines in the U.S.

The EIS would have us think that the potential risks involved are not solely placed on these vulnerable populations but are spread “equally”across all points of the proposed pipeline. Yet the necessary infrastructure for medical, housing, and life necessities may seriously tax local tribal communities (not to mention all rural communities in its proposed path). This reality is best exemplified on the Fort Berthold Reservation where tribal leaders allowed the development of its BSF oil sands. I wont go into detail about the environmental and humanitarian catastrophe currently taking place at Fort Berthold, but want to acknowledge how incompatible tribal communities and historically vulnerable populations are with the exploitative needs of mass industrial resource development which exhaust land, labor, and infrastructure.

The Potential Releases Impacts Associated with the Proposed (KXL) Project and Alternatives demonstrates that at current production levels and given current transport infrastructure there will be a significant amount of projected spills if the KXL Pipeline is not built. The safest "alternative," the EIS would have us believe, is the construction of the KXL Pipeline.
The Potential Releases Impacts Associated with the Proposed (KXL) Project and Alternatives demonstrates that at current production levels and given current transport infrastructure there will be a significant amount of projected spills if the KXL Pipeline is not built. The safest “alternative,” the EIS would have us believe, is the construction of the KXL Pipeline.

Water

Perhaps the most deleterious effect of oil sands production and transportation is the risk it would place (and currently places) on water resources. The proposed KXL pipeline will cross the Northern High Plains Aquifer (which includes the Ogallala Aquifer) and the Great Plains Aquifer. As the oil sands industries in the WCSB and the BSF have demonstrated, the fracking process is water-intensive, often resulting in the contamination of local water supplies with the potential to leak into larger aquifers. Moreover, the KXL pipelines potential threat to water resources is incalculable, since it will tunnel under major rivers and tributaries, increasing the risk of contamination and spills.

“Alternatives” are not Alternatives at All

Executive Order 13337 requires the KXL pipeline project prove it serves “national interests”in order to receive a Presidential Permit to allow its construction and operation. Unlike other oil pipelines, such as the already constructed Gulf Coast Project Pipeline (which connects the existing portion of the Keystone Pipeline to oil refineries in Texas), KXL requires a Presidential Permit because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border. But the EIS demonstrates that despite this lengthy process oil production and transportation will not cease.

To insure this, the EIS proposes “alternatives”if the pipeline is not constructed. In what it describes as a “No Action Alternative”—or if the Presidential Permit is denied and the project is not implementedother transportation infrastructure and methods, including truck, barge, tankers, and rail, will be fully utilized. In other words, the oil market will respond.

These “alternatives”are not alternatives at all. Instead, the EIS demonstrates that in spite of the KXL pipeline oil sand production and transportation will continue, since it is not just domestic concern but also intentional oil markets that are driving production. In any struggle against the construction of KXL we need to take these insights seriously and examine the vital infrastructure and political institutions already in place that proliferate and expand the transport, refinement, and production of oil sands.

The “alternative”futures proposed are not oil-free futures. They do, however, demonstrate the particular bind we face. As the wage-bind restricts the worker in imagining alternatives to capitalism and the colonial-bind restricts colonized (and colonizing) people from imagining alternatives to colonialism, the oil-futures bind restricts our current imagining of a world free of colonialist and capitalist exploitation of land, labor, and Indigenous peoples.

Disruption

Recently, the Oglala Lakota Tribe, the Sicangu Oyate, and the state of Nebraska have all condemned the KXL project. This kind of resistance is born out of grassroots activism, Native and non-Native, and demonstrates essential collaborations and understandings of risk and vulnerability felt across socio-economic, class, and national boundaries. But this cannot be the end goal—merely stopping the construction of the KXL pipeline. It must begin and end with conversations and movements that imagine new possibilities not constrained and limited to oil-dependent futures.

Lakota activists at the 41st Annual Wounded Knee Liberation Day, Wounded Knee, SD, February 28, 2014, prepare to stop the proposed KXL Pipeline, which would cross treaty-protected territory. Photo by Chas Jewett.
Lakota activists at the 41st Annual Wounded Knee Liberation Day, Wounded Knee, SD, February 28, 2014, prepare to stop the proposed KXL Pipeline, which would cross treaty-protected territory. Photo by Chas Jewett.

It also poses the question of how to build mass environmental movements, in which Native peoples and nations stand at the forefront by placing their bodies and livelihoods on the line to defend land that has been stolen and dispossessed from them. Where does that place our understanding of the shared histories of colonialism and capitalism?

This essay arises from both hope and frustration. The hope is that we can grasp the formulaic logics and prescribed certainties that the EIS proposes to sustain an oil economy without reducing these logics to the singular movement of stopping just the proposed KXL pipeline. The frustration is that imagining oil-free futures is doomed if we do not take seriously the dual historic processes of capitalism and colonialism in our efforts to deconstruct and understand the reality and future the EIS proposes.

For a meaningful, collaborative movement to work against the multinational oil industry that places everyone at risk, we have to begin to ask these questions and confront the current realities Indigenous peoples facematerial dispossessions, rampant social and political inequalities, and the quotidian violences colonial occupation manifests. Only through this lens can we begin to analyze the machinations of global energy production that endangers and requires the subversion and dispossession of Indigenous lands and lives.

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3 comments

  1. Isn’t it frustrating and interesting to find a map that is easily transposeable that shows Rez boundaries?
    Am I right in thinking this thing goes through Fort Peck, Northern Cheyenne & Rosebud, or does it just skirt around the edges (as if that was any different)
    ?

    • Actually, the proposed KXL route does not directly cross reservation boundaries. Its proposed ancillary construction (power lines, etc.) do cross reservation boundaries, namely the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

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