Oil Sands, Keystone XL, and the New Politics of Fossil Fuel Infrastructure
There’s no use talking about new energy sources without assessing the social, political, and economic contexts into which they might emerge. For unless a nascent technology can command broad stakeholder assent within a given socio-political context, the technology is likely to remain marginal within it. The Canadian oil sands, which I discussed here previously, provide a case in point. And, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come.
By now, there’s little left to say about the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport synthetic oil from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast for refinement and shipping. The battle lines are drawn, and enormous volumes of analysis and rhetoric have been marshaled to support opposing views.
The pipeline will have little material impact on climate change, says the State Department, as most of the oil will be extracted and burned in any case. The State Department's analysis is outrageous, says the Sierra Club, as it's based on ‘deeply flawed analysis’. Not only is protesting the pipeline a distraction from more useful forms of action, say Andrew Revkin and the Washington Post’s editorial board, but the focus on Keystone may actually prove counterproductive to broader climate change action. Not so, say David Roberts and Mike Grunwald: the battle over Keystone may not be the best one to fight, but it’s the battle underway and, as such, it’s inexorably freighted with profound political symbolism.
In a sense, they’re all correct. The oil sands will be exploited to whatever degree is economically and logistically possible; much of the carbon within will end up in the atmosphere. Yet absent a major pipeline the oil sands are unlikely to be exploited as quickly or at as low a cost. True, if the pipeline’s climate impact is marginal compared to alternative scenarios, protesting the pipeline may not be the most effective tactic in reducing global carbon emissions. Still, the pipeline’s symbolic status is undeniable, and it has galvanized an immense amount of public concern.
At this point, my interest in Keystone XL is not so much in arguing for or against the approval of the pipeline: to the extent that this decision reflects public opinion at all, yet another view on the matter is unlikely to tip the scales. What really interests me is how the debate raging over Keystone XL might indicate a broader shift in climate politics, and whether it might prefigure future dynamics at the intersection of new energy infrastructure, climate change politics, and environmental advocacy.
In particular, I’m interested in whether we’re moving from a model in which environmental advocacy organisations couple sweeping, macro-level policy promotion with decentralized, bottom-up legal and regulatory work—think the 2009 cap-and-trade push combined with local lawsuits fighting to close coal plants—towards a new alternative in which national advocacy focuses principally on channeling high-level, national political and media attention towards specific local infrastructure projects in service of fighting new, carbon intensive development one project at a time, construction project by construction project.
Of course protesting local infrastructural developments on global environmental grounds is not a new tactic: the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has taken exactly this approach, using legal and regulatory manoeuvres to close existing coal plants and block the construction of new ones. Law-oriented environmental groups such as EarthJustice and the Conservation Law Foundation have used similar tactics for decades, often to substantial effect.
But the elevation of one specific, discrete infrastructural asset to the level of attention that Keystone XL has achieved represents a watershed. Most previous infrastructure battles took place on the state and local level, in courtrooms and regulatory agencies. Activists were fighting to enforce existing laws, and in some cases to strengthen them.
The Keystone debate, by contrast, is unfolding in newsrooms and living rooms across the country, on Capitol Hill and through high-level diplomatic channels. Activists are fighting to prevent a specific agglomeration of steel and concrete from coming into being, not primarily on legal or regulatory grounds but through an appeal to core values and intergenerational justice. If President Obama ultimately rejects the pipeline’s construction, he will do so not on the basis of sound energy and climate strategy but out of fear of the symbolism of the moment, which is likely to be seen as historic regardless of the proposed pipeline's ultimate impact on climate.
Whatever the President decides, this is unlikely to be the last political controversy in which moral and political attention is channelled from the global and national levels towards a discrete local infrastructure project. Though we talk about climate change mostly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations of CO2, and average global surface temperatures, industrial civilization's relationship to earth's climate is forged materially through steel and cement, through large volumes of capital investment in utility-scale facilities. Infrastructure matters, and there’s a great deal of it to focus on. A trans-continental pipeline is significant, but not inherently more so than a mega-tanker, a high-volume refinery, a coal export terminal, or a vast oilfield installation.
Are we headed towards a politics of climate action in which macro-level, intertemporal concerns are inflected primarily at the micro-level through well-targeted, well-amplified protests of exactly these sorts of facilities? Will advocacy continue to shift away from top-down policy efforts, increasingly deemed fruitless, and towards the ship and rail terminals, refinery construction sites, and productive extraction regions through which the fossil fuel economy is articulated?
If so, the implications could be profound, and especially so for new fossil energy sources such as Canada’s oil sands. The weight of global attention—and the moral outrage that now accompanies it—has thus far been bearable for most incumbent stakeholders benefiting from the status quo fossil fuel economy. Individual infrastructure projects may not prove so resilient.
Mark Caine is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. There, he coordinates energy and climate programmes for the Mackinder Programme for the Study of Long Wave Events, a research centre dedicated to political economy, geopolitics, long-wave trends, and scenario-based thinking.
Mark holds degrees from Brown and Cambridge Universities.
Other Posts by Mark Caine
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