Up On Carmon Creek; Why Keystone Is More Than Just Symbolism

By Matson Boyd

The Keystone XL pipeline is dead. The usual parade of writers have come out to argue that the anti-Keystone activists were wasting their time, that Keystone was actually benign for the climate. In the Washington Post, Stephen Stromberg derided the “stunning lack of substance behind the anti-Keystone XL movement.” Even defenders of the activists feel compelled to agree that Keystone was symbolic. It doesn’t really mean that much for the climate, they argue, because the oil will just come out some other way. Keystone undoubtedly has great symbolic power, but the defenders of the activists are missing that the fight is already helping to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Tar Sands Before & After. Photo from Northern Rockies Rising Tide.
Tar Sands Before & After. Photo from Northern Rockies Rising Tide.

On October 28th, Shell abandoned its multi-billion dollar Carmon Creek project, which would have produced 80,000 barrels of dirty oil per day. Along with low oil prices, Shell cited “lack of pipeline capacity” as a main reason why it gave up on the Northern Alberta project. Besides Keystone, all of the other routes to get oil out of the country are being blocked. The Northern Gateway project through northern British Columbia was the shortest route, but in response to activists the new Trudeau government has banned oil tanker traffic on the northern coast of B.C. And of course without tankers to pick up the oil, there is no point in a pipeline. The TransMountain pipeline to ports in Vancouver likewise faces significant opposition. The Energy East route through eastern Canada has run into roadblocks with Quebec activists, and the backers have had to drop plans to build an oil port in Quebec. The remainder of the project remains up in the air, but we should know by this point not to bet against climate activists.

Almost two years ago now, the State Department study on the effects of Keystone came out. The headline findings that garnered all the press were that Keystone would have no effect, because the oil would just find another way out. So it’s not surprising that journalists have adopted that view. But the State Department downplayed and buried an alternative scenario it explored, in which no other pipeline would be built and oil prices were lower (exactly what has transpired since their analysis). It found in that scenario that the expansion of the tar sands attributable to Keystone would be the equivalent of adding 5.7 million passenger vehicles to the road.

The lack of pipelines raises the costs of bringing oil out of the interior, but it’s still profitable to bring some smaller amount of oil out on oil trains through the Pacific Northwest. That battle is ongoing, along with the battle to stop coal from coming out of the interior. Activists have stopped oil train and coal train infrastructure from being built in many communities, but an alarming number of schemes for new coal ports and new oil train ports and refineries have been proposed. The Sightline Institute has been documenting the fight, and they’ve found that proposed and permitted projects in the Pacific NorthWest amount to the carbon equivalent of more than five Keystone Pipelines! At this point, little of that expanded infrastructure has actually been created. It’s up to activists to stop the rest and complete the carbon blockade.

It’s easy to understand the skepticism that many analysts have for the Keystone protesters and other “supply activists”. The activists have raised the cost of getting oil to market for the Alberta producers, and indirectly raised the price of oil everywhere. But no band of activists can stop oil everywhere, and stopping oil production in one place just makes it more profitable to get it out somewhere else. Stop one pipeline, they’ll build it somewhere else. So the best solution is to cap carbon, and to not waste time on project by project activism. But until we get that cap, fighting tooth-and-claw to stop new carbon infrastructure is tremendously important. So far, the “supply activists” have stopped project after project and managed to keep a large amount of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground.