It’s been an important week for climate activists opposed to a proposed oil pipeline stretching from Canada to Texas—but victory is not yet at hand. The State Department announced today that it will undertake a review of alternative routes before deciding whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. This is expected to delay the decision on whether to grant a permit for the $7 billion project by up to 18 months. Today’s announcement follows news on Monday that the State Department will face an investigation of its handling of TransCanada Corporation’s permit request for the pipeline. The Department’s inspector general’s office announced that it would investigate whether State’s decision to contract the initial environmental impact study to Cardno Entrix—a company that had previous ties to and had been recommended by TransCanada—violated federal laws and regulations. Today’s statement noted “the concentration of concerns regarding the environmental sensitivities of the current proposed route,” which is an acknowledgement of the potentially calamitous effects of the pipeline’s presence in Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region and the Ogalala aquifer, an important source of water for drinking and irrigation in Nebraska and neighboring states. Proposed legislation in Nebraska would effectively force the project to reroute by banning large pipelines from passing through these areas.
By seeking a new route for the pipeline, the Obama administration may address some of the public health concerns raised by state officials. But aside from a vague acknowledgement that “environmental concerns” are “among the relevant issues” that will be considered in a revised environmental impact statement, however, this move does little to address the fundamental issue at stake: climate change. Nevertheless, that the administration has chosen to delay the decision until after the 2012 elections represents a victory of sorts for anti-pipeline activists, who have succeeded in turning the issue into a calamity for Obama and are unlikely to be appeased by a rerouting of the pipeline. At a Stop the Keystone XL pipeline demonstration held in Washington, D.C. on November 6, activists were clear about the disastrous environmental and economic effects that the project would have. 10,000 demonstrators circled the White House to demand that Obama say “no” to the 2,100 mile pipeline that is intended to bring oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in the United States. Leading climate scientist James Hansen told the rally at the White House that the tar sands are the “critical juncture” in our struggle against “fossil fuel addiction.” Hansen was instrumental in starting the anti-tar sands movement when he stated that mining the tar sands would mean “game over” for the climate. Many speakers echoed Hansen’s sentiments. Transit Workers Union president Roger Toussaint added, “the pipeline closes the door on bringing global warming under control.” Peter Wilk, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that it will “deepen our dependency on oil, contributing to ever worsening climate chaos. Extreme weather events of the past year are not mere coincidence. They are part of an alarming pattern of worsening hurricanes, heat waves, snow storms, flooding… It is happening now.” He quoted the World Health Organization, which attributes 140,000 deaths per year to global warming. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and the key organizer of the event—and sit-down demonstrations this past summer outside of the White House, at which hundreds were arrested—declared that “if we go ahead and build this stupid pipeline, there is no way that we will ever in this country be able to ask anyone—in China or anyplace else—to do the right thing on climate.” Debunking the argument that somehow tar sands oil would bring global oil prices down, Naomi Klein explained that “the tar sands are only viable if the price of oil stays up.” Klein also rebutted another argument for building the pipeline, namely that it will be built to Canada’s Pacific coastline if it isn’t built across the United States. She said that we Canadians “will stop whatever pipeline you try to build,” and that a demonstration was taking place in Vancouver at the same time as the one in Washington. “We have the tar sands surrounded,” she declared, referring to their landlocked location. “We need to cut off the arteries and cause a heart attack.” Speakers also condemned other environmental impacts of the pipeline in addition to global warming. Former pipeline worker John Bolenbaugh described the many spills he witnessed, explaining, “there will be spills if you let this thing go through.” Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist like Klein, said that this is “the dirtiest oil on earth,” as she described the poisoned lakes, deadly to all wildlife, that remain after the mining. At this weekend’s demonstration, Courtney Hyde, a youthful supporter of Obama in 2008 urged him to “give us hope back.” Bill McKibben said that we have to “liberate Barack Obama from wherever they have him locked away,” describing how Obama donors are lined up holding off on donations until he says no to the pipeline. Heather Mizeur a member of the Democratic National Committee, told the crowd she was inspired by the 1,253 arrests at the White House earlier this year. Mizeur warned Obama, “If you don’t veto the pipeline, your next campaign slogan should be “Climate Change we can Believe In.” Rebecca Burns contributed to this article.