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Beyond the pipeline: Keystone XL

Obama speaking at a pipe yard in Oklahoma, 2012 Obama speaking at a pipe yard in Oklahoma, 2012 Matt Wansley
17 Nov
2015
President Obama has rejected the controversial oil pipeline, Keystone XL, once and for all. Geographical explores how the pipeline became symbolic of US climate conflict and what it could mean for big oil

The Keystone XL project has spent seven years in political limbo. Put to the US government for approval in 2008, the project would have connected existing pipelines to bring oil from Canada and North Dakota further southwards to the state of Illinois. During that time it became a battle between the polar sides of US politics.

In a speech last week rejecting the pipeline plans for good, President Obama described  the ‘overinflated role’ Keystone XL had gained. ‘This pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others,’ he said. The idea of Keystone XL went above and beyond its function as a piece of infrastructure: labour unions saw it in terms of the jobs it could create, while anti-oil campaigners thought it a death knell for the environment.

‘The fight over Keystone XL was more symbolic than substantive,’ says Dr David Konisky, Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. ‘The pipeline was neither “game over” for the climate as some environmental activists claimed, nor a huge economic boon as supporters argued. However, the pipeline took on enormous political significance in the ongoing debate about US energy and climate policy.’ 

WIDER REPERCUSSIONS

What was Obama’s aim with the symbolic rejection? ‘I think the administration was focused on the domestic scene,’ says Dr Paul Landow, Professor of Politics at the University of Nebraska. Crucially, Hillary Clinton – currently the Democratic Party’s front-runner candidate for next US President – also came out against the pipeline earlier this year.

‘Obama’s decision formally aligns the two, thereby strengthening her position with Democratic primary voters. His decision was all politics and was meant to send a positive message to the Democratic base.’

Konisky says the rejection of Keystone XL could carry weight beyond the domestic scene and into international policy, especially coming so near to the major climate conference, COP21, in Paris this December. ‘Obama timed the announcement to add some momentum to the talks,’ he says, ‘and to signal to the international community that the US is committed to dealing with the climate problem.’

When it comes to using fossil fuels, Obama spoke in terms of keeping crude oil ‘in the ground’ – a first for a US president. This follows scientific argument that large quantities of fossil fuels must go untouched in order to limit global warming. According to research by scientists at University College London, 74 per cent of Canadian tar sands, and six per cent of US oil must stay in the ground if the temperature rise is to remain below 2°C. However, Landow says Keystone does not necessarily mean the end of oil in America: ‘Big oil is still very powerful and influential and I do not think that will change anytime soon. That being said, environmental politics, with climate change as the context, will start moving into a more prominent place in the American political debate.’

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