The National Conversation

The Promising Predicament of the Keystone XL Pipeline

David Bond is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of crude oil, the environment, and science. He is a faculty member and senior associate at Bennington’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action, where he continues to work at the intersection of hydrocarbon disasters and governable forms of life.

This fall I taught a seminar at Bennington College that used the promises and protests surrounding the Keystone XL as a prompt to reflect more broadly on questions of energy infrastructure and social change today. In preparation for the seminar, I rented a car this past summer and drove the presumed path of the Keystone XL. Owned and operated by the TransCanada Corporation, the Keystone Pipeline System consists of four phases, the first three of which are already built and pumping crude. Phase One of this project connected the Alberta oil fields to Winnipeg before heading due south to a pipeline junction in Steele City, Nebraska. Phases Two and Three connected the refineries of Houston, Texas to the Steele City junction. The controversial Keystone XL seeks to link the Steele City junction directly to the Albertan oil fields, forming a sort of hypotenuse on the existing Keystone pipeline system. As designed, the Keystone XL is really just a shortcut.

It is worth noting, the Keystone XL is far from the first or even the only conduit bringing tar sands oil into the United States. Not only have trains carrying crude from the tar sands become commonplace in many parts of the United States, but a handful of pipelines now carry Canadian bitumen diluted with chemical solvents, or dilbit, to U.S. refineries. In many cases, pipeline companies retrofitted or simply reversed the flow of existing pipelines to avoid the public scrutiny of a new project. The Keystone XL is unique in that, as a new border-crossing pipeline, it requires the State Department to review its impact and attest to the pipeline being in the national interest. 

The thousand-mile route of the Keystone XL cuts across some of the more desolate portions of the northern Great Plains. Although Keystone XL steers clear of major cities, it does pass by about fifteen small towns. In contrast to what is so often reported from afar, in towns like McCool Junction, Nebraska (pop. 413) or Midland, South Dakota (pop. 127) or Circle, Montana (pop. 617) I met folks who are neither adamantly for nor against the pipeline. When asked directly, many people around the oil fields of Montana voiced their support for the project and many people in the Sand Hills of Nebraska voiced their discontent for the project. But overall most people I spoke with along the route were ambivalent about Keystone XL. They were keen to have some decent local jobs but also wary of the gloss of big corporations, especially foreign ones.

Crude oil networks have become quite adept at dodging and disabling robust forms of democratic governance

Walking down neighborhoods strewn with rusty equipment and empty lots, it was not hard to imagine where this hesitancy might come from. Many of these towns first sprung up alongside the movements of people and goods, trying to capitalize on whatever happened to be passing by. These towns have stitched their history together with the debris of military pacification campaigns, immigrant settler trails, transcontinental railways, and most recently the interstate. They’ve seen boom and bust before, both in the feverish future such adjacent traffic promises and in the ruins so often left behind. Today, huge granaries fall into disuse along railways now crowded with coal trains not making any local stops. What commerce remains has drifted from the boarded-up main street to a single gas station out by the highway. These towns are not so much out-of-the-way—indeed, what success they have had is owed to being very much in the way—as they are ever more meticulously passed by.

If the Keystone XL is approved, a near astronomic amount of wealth is about to flow by these towns. And yet to an almost unrivalled degree, the wealth flowing through the 36-inch diameter steel pipe will accrue in concentration elsewhere (the risks, of course, will be widely distributed). About two thousand property owners will receive a check for a permanent right of way from the Keystone XL. Most will do so under the express threat of an eminent domain seizure. Municipalities might see an uptick in tax revenues to fund school improvements and property tax breaks for residents. At least that’s the case if you don’t live in Kansas, which in a legislative arms race to see who could appear more pro-pipeline—a one-upmanship that appears to have taken even TransCanada by surprise—exempted new oil pipelines from taxes at about the same time the state budget slipped into financial turmoil. While local communities might see a flurry of workers desiring housing and food and lord knows what else during the construction boom, once built, the pipeline will be operated out of an office in Calgary. Keystone XL will require, at most, a handful of permanent workers in the United States. It is not until after the pipeline is buried and unseen that the real wealth will start to flow, to the tune of about 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day. And of that most lucrative flow, local communities will see very little if anything at all.  

The Keystone XL, then, is an apt example of what political theorist Timothy Mitchell calls “Carbon Democracy.” Crude oil, according to Mitchell, has played a key role in shaping the limits of democratic practice today. Through imperial interventions, unmanned infrastructure, and oceanic distribution, crude oil networks have become quite adept at dodging and disabling robust forms of democratic governance. For Mitchell, oil pipelines are the premier example of this occlusion of public concerns. Driving through the small towns along the route of the Keystone XL this summer, I could not help but reflect on how unremarkable this foreclosure of political possibility has become.

It is not until after the pipeline is buried and unseen that the real wealth will start to flow, to the tune of about 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

Two months later, I attended the People’s Climate March in New York City. On the streets of that spirited and immense gathering, the Keystone XL had not foreclosed political possibilities but caused them to proliferate. Not only was an anti-Keystone XL message proclaimed in posters and rallying calls but other pipelines like the Alberta Clipper and the Exxon Pegasus were in notable and scorned attendance. One group of marchers wore baseball jerseys identifying themselves as “Pipeline Fighters.” Another group dressed as a black hydrocarbon octopus whose sprawling tentacles became pipelines that chased wildlife down Sixth Avenue. While the People’s Climate March lined up all variety of suspects for castigation, I was still taken aback by how ubiquitous pipelines have become in climate activism.

Could climate activism be cultivating a new kind of public action? And might the growing presence of pipelines tell us something about this shift? So much of the environmental movement in the United States gained moral and regulatory force in the outraged response to industrial disasters, from oil spills to toxic releases. Climate change, in contrast, demands public action not in reaction to an acute disaster but in anticipation of the diffuse disaster to come: a slow unraveling of the planet’s climate. Although residents of the Maldives, Philippines, and coastal New Jersey might disagree, for many of us climate change does not yet have the density of a deeply felt event. As novelist Zadie Smith points out in her essay, “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” climate change is a disaster that we have a “scientific and ideological language for” but “hardly any intimate words.” How do you mobilize around the turgid prose of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report? How do you protest the predicted event? Where do you even begin?

A few years ago, a modest starting point in the fight against climate change emerged: fossil fuel infrastructure. Although neatly sidestepping the more consequential question of domestic consumption, petro-infrastructure nonetheless offered a starting point for those incensed by the lack of action on climate change despite mounting evidence of its reality. In 2011, this frustration rather potently aligned with the Keystone XL permitting process. It was NASA Scientist James Hansen who first pointed out this convergence in a letter posted online. Noting that the window for public comment on the Keystone XL was about to close, Hansen encouraged all concerned citizens to log their discontent. “If this project gains approval, it will become exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster,” he wrote. Extracting and burning the tar sands, Hansen argued, would push global warming well past the point of no return. If the Keystone XL was built, Hansen concluded, “it is essentially game over.”

Many climate activists took note and got to work. Bill McKibben and his creatively publicized the otherwise mundane process of permitting a new pipeline. Progressive online news sites like ProPublica and Inside Climate News turned their investigative reporting towards the Keystone XL, uncovering embarrassing details in regulatory documents and corporate filings that never anticipated such scrutiny. Through their work and many others, pipelines are now part of our political conversations. My local NPR station now regularly covers the Addison Natural Gas Project in Vermont, whose proposed pipeline has inspired a new kind of civil disobedience: the knit-in.

Marching down Sixth Avenue during the People’s Climate March, the Keystone XL was widely jeered and vilified. And yet in so much of that spirited antipathy, the physical pipeline and the small rural communities it touches seemed to matter less than the planetary crisis the Keystone XL has been asked to stand in for. Climate change trumps local context in orienting so much of the discontent around oil pipelines. For many of the activists I spoke with on that September afternoon, the Keystone XL was not so much a shortcut on an existing pipeline system as it was the opening skirmish in the looming struggle to rein in global warming. Several I spoke with could not even identify the states the pipeline would pass through.

It is notable that the express goal in this rising climate activism around pipelines is not to hijack key energy chokepoints but to trip up the tidy image of hydrocarbon infrastructure as “safe, silent, and unseen,” to borrow a popular industry description of pipelines. In the People’s Climate March, protesters creatively entangled Keystone and other pipelines in narrow conduits of profit, broad patterns of destruction, and the specter of a curtailed future. The emerging mantra might be: Don’t seize control, seize the implications. In this, oil pipelines are being confronted more as ecologies of harm than as buried metal tubes. While the relations of consequence being pinned on the pipelines exceed the communities immediately adjacent to them—as evidenced in both the ambivalence of many towns along the Keystone XL route and the absence of those very communities in climate activism—such relations have nonetheless given these pipelines a new scale of transparency. Oil pipelines have become, well, visible. And in that rising visibility, petro-networks are being opened up to new forms of accountability and refusal.

Course Description Fall 2014

Whether ultimately approved or not, the Keystone XL Pipeline offers a telling window into the contemporary politics of hydrocarbons in North America. Although oil pipelines have been around for nearly a century, they have long been neglected in scholarship and public debate. Today, that is beginning to change. Whether as a vehicle of development or as a harbinger of climate change, oil pipelines are increasingly understood not as inert things but as consequential authors in our troubled present. Using the technical planning for and spirited protests around the Keystone XL as primary source material, we will reflect more generally on the question of what kind of politics is possible around energy networks. A few themes will guide our inquiries: the aspirations and anxieties that gather around such projects; the inner workings of the regulatory process; the status of public voices; the relations between disclosed data and buried material; how energy networks build certain material and ethical linkages and sever others; and how fossil fuels interact with (or elude) traditional forms of criticism and change. At a number of points we will link the Keystone XL Pipeline to much bigger debates in social research today, including questions about the social dimensions of infrastructure as well as questions about the technical limits of democratic practice. Comparisons will be made with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, BTC Pipeline, and the Chad Cameroon Pipeline.