Essay: Lies in the energy debate


Laying pipe in Texas. Photo courtesy Ray Bodden/flickr

April 27, 2012

Having felt euphoria when President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline permit, environmentalists now see the tarsands juggernaut barely pausing. 

In fact, all the worst-case developments remain on track. Is it time to stand up?

By Alan S. Kesselheim
For the Daily Climate

kesselheim"This is a victory for Americans who testified in record numbers, and who demanded that science get the hearing usually reserved for big money." – Bill McKibben, January 2012.

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Once long ago – actually only three months ago – the Obama administration drew a line in the sand in solidarity with thousands of protesters, reams of petitions and dozens of dramatic demonstrations across the country, giving cry to environmental concerns over tarsands oil development and general alarm at the threat of accelerated climate change. 

Now, it looks like that line was at best a diversion, at worst a lie.

Almost immediately, pressure mounted from conservatives and Republicans, including some of the very politicians in Nebraska who had opposed the Keystone XL pipeline carrying Alberta's tarsands crude to Texas ports. It soon became clear that the permit denial might only signal a delay, while the pipeline route was modified to skirt the vulnerable Nebraska Sandhills. 

The stark reality is that Keystone XL is only one tentacle of the oil and gas octopus.


The "hearing" that founder Bill McKibben hoped science might receive morphed back into political sloganeering, business-as-usual for oil and gas interests, and a deaf ear for both the public outcry and the sober warnings of many scientists. 


Look no further than Montana's U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Jon Tester, a Democrat, faces a stiff challenge from the state's sole representative in the U.S. House, Republican Denny Rehberg. I support Tester. I've attended his fund raisers. Yet I cringed at a recent campaign event where Tester defended the Keystone project and the oil fracking boom in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, spouting standard refrains about "friendly oil," "jobs," and "oil independence." 

Tester seemed genuine, but it’s clear he is in a political box, much like Obama. Neither can afford to speak the truth, or pursue real alternatives, when it comes to our unsustainable energy momentum. Questioned on this, Tester refused to face the hard realities, and I could see the political wheels turning as he spoke. Obama makes those same political calculations, and they may be the reason why his administration is on track to approve more oil drilling permits than President George W. Bush.

Fundamental addiction

The stark reality is that Keystone XL is only one tentacle of the oil and gas octopus. It may be the current high-profile issue, but it is tangential to the main problem: Our fundamental addiction to oil and gas at any cost. 

The heartbreaking irony is that none of this will bring down gas prices at the pump. 

Megaload trucking transport of super-sized oil extraction equipment heading north from the port of Lewistown, Idaho, to the Alberta tarsands continues and intensifies. The fracking metastasis, so immediate in this part of the West, is spreading throughout the continent, and indeed the world, with vaguely understood but alarming ripple effects, including groundwater pollution, habitat destruction, seismic unrest, and social dysfunction in booming communities. The tarsands of Alberta, not to mention Venezuela, are being expanded at an exponential rate and at an appalling environmental cost.

Another tentacle of the Alberta tarsands – the Northern Gateway pipeline route being pushed through from Alberta to British Columbia – would cross significant First Nation lands and imperil fisheries, marine life, and coastal cultures along its path. 

At first the Northern Gateway pipeline was trotted out as a threat, in case the Keystone XL line was blocked. Now it appears that no matter the fate of Keystone, the Canadian pipeline will happen as well. The Chinese are eager to diversify their oil imports and are exerting pressure on the Canadian government to fast-track the project, whether or not Keystone goes forward. In the tortured channel supertankers must negotiate through the Inside Passage to get that oil to Asia, a marine spill is a when – not if – proposition.

WMD equivalents

The heartbreaking irony is that none of this will bring down gas prices at the pump. It will not alter unemployment. It will not free us from foreign oil. These are the WMD equivalents trotted out by politicians and industry to rationalize their unadorned greed. They are lies.

What these projects will unquestionably do is make the Exxon-Mobils of the world more obscenely wealthy than ever. They will create environmental devastation on a scale that will saddle generations to come with the consequences. And they will fuel the inexorable and unabated fires of climate change.

I've had enough. If ever there was a time to stand and speak up, it is now. Rick Bass, Montana environmental activist and author, hopes that we will look back at this cusp in history and be able to say, "We chose courage rather than silence."

© Alan Kesselheim, 2012. All rights reserved

Photo of Alberta tarsands refinery courtesy Pete Williamson/flickr.

Alan Kesselheim is a frequent contributor to He lives in Bozeman, Mont. is a nonprofit news-service that covers climate change. Views expressed in opinions and essays are the author's and not those of


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