Steven Anderson, a retired brigadier general, became an outspoken opponent of the pipeline based on his experience overseeing the U.S. Army's supply chain during the Iraq War. "That's where I really saw the absurdity of our addiction to oil," he says. "It was not just the strategic costs of maintaining our military presence in the Middle East, but the operational costs of keeping our troops moving and viable during a time of war." Anderson estimates that of the 1,000 trucks the Army had in motion each day during the height of the war, 300 of them were devoted exclusively to moving fuel around. By Anderson's estimate, at least 1,000 American soldiers died transporting fuel. "It was absurd and tragic," he says.
The pipeline, Anderson says, would actually undermine our energy security by perpetuating the fantasy that America can drill its way to freedom and prosperity. "It allows us to think we can keep driving our SUVs, that everything is fine," he argues. "It is not fine. We need to make big changes to how we think about energy in America. The Keystone pipeline is not the solution to our problems. It is emblematic of it. If we build this pipeline, we will look back on this in 50 years and see how foolish we were."
For months, Obama had vowed to make a swift decision about the pipeline, saying he would settle the matter by the end of the year. As recently as November 1st, the president told a Nebraska reporter that he would be guided by a simple question: "What is best for the American people?" But as the protests over the pipeline heated up – and the State Department's environmental analysis was revealed to be both unscientific and corrupt – the White House began to suggest that it needed more time before making a decision.
Obama was heckled by anti-pipeline activists at events in Denver and San Francisco. Big campaign donors, angered by Obama's unwillingness to take a strong stand on climate change, also pressured the president to deny the permit. The White House, which was hoping to score points in energy-producing states by approving the pipeline, was not pleased. "I was getting calls from the White House almost every day," says the head of a major environmental group who asked not to be identified. "They said, 'What are you doing to us? Are you trying to help us lose the election?'"
When the State Department announced it was postponing the Keystone permit, anti-pipeline activists were ecstatic; Friends of the Earth hailed Obama's decision as a "major accomplishment for the climate movement." The American Petroleum Institute, meanwhile, accused the president of election-year pandering to a "radical constituency opposed to any and all oil and gas development." In retaliation, Big Oil is expected to invest heavily in attack ads over the next year blasting Obama for destroying pipeline jobs and keeping America beholden to Middle Eastern oil.
But the decision, while a major victory for the environment, may prove short-lived. In postponing the pipeline, the president offered no bold statement about the need to curb America's addiction to oil or to invest in clean energy. In the end, Obama opted to delay the pipeline with a bureaucratic shuffle, arguing only that the route through Nebraska needed further study. The failure to take a firm stand against converting Canada's tar sands into oil leaves the door open for Keystone – or another pipeline just like it.
Russ Girling, the CEO of TransCanada, says the company remains "confident Keystone XL will ultimately be approved," and has already offered to reroute the pipeline around the Sand Hills. Rival firms are promoting smaller, less controversial alternatives that would connect existing pipelines to refineries on the Gulf Coast, and Canada's finance minister says it's time to explore ways to transport tar sands oil to the coast for transport to China. "This decision may or may not kill this particular pipeline," says Stockman of Oil Change International. "There will certainly be others. In the long run, the only way to stop the tar sands is to reduce the demand for oil."
Other activists agree. "Given 10 years, Canada will figure out a way to get the tar sands oil out into the world," says McKibben. "But if in 10 years we haven't figured out a way to get off oil, we will be heading into a full-scale climate disaster – so it will all be moot anyway. This is about buying us precious time."
This article is from the December 8, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
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