Keystone XL — Bright Shiny Object

Dave Loebsack

Dave Loebsack

Friday the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill directing the federal government to move forward on the Keystone XL pipeline on a 252-161 vote. It was less than the number of votes needed to override a presidential veto, but Barack Obama has been holding his cards close to the chest on Keystone. What he would do if a bill reached his desk is uncertain.

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Senate scheduled a vote on the bill for Tuesday, and Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) believes there are already 59 of 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster when the vote comes up. If the senate can get past a filibuster, the bill’s passage is assured, although getting 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto is less certain than it is in the the house. It’s all political theater.

Our Representative Dave Loebsack voted for the bill, reversing his last vote on Keystone XL. He sent social media atwitter with shock and disappointment framed in terms that appeared to help the authors vent frustration more than say anything coherent. I am disappointed with the vote, but what politician ever consistently voted my way?

I know a couple of things.

When people talk about “environmentalists” I no longer have a clue to whom they refer. Is a farmer who plants a buffer zone based on a government grant an environmentalist? Is a non-governmental organization’s local staff member—overly dependent upon funding sources—an environmentalist? Is a Washington lobbyist for a large NGO an environmentalist? What about members of the defense department working toward a lower carbon footprint for the military? What about my neighbors who protest building a subdivision near Lake Macbride? There aren’t real answers to these questions, and that’s the problem with vague references to “environmentalists.” There is no club to which they all belong, and fewer common denominators. The idea is actually a right wing talking point, and the frame “environmentalists” is used to demonize advocates for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and against production of electricity using coal, natural gas and nuclear fuels. Keystone XL is not a common denominator among environmentalists.

The failure of environmentalists was targeting the pipeline at all, instead of the tar sands. The tar sands is a bigger problem because of humanity’s inexhaustible thirst for oil and natural gas. This is the same problem for the Bakken, West Texas and Eagle Ford formations. Because oil and gas are in demand, there is direct financial return, subsidized by our government, in exploiting these resources. The environmental communities have been unable to adequately articulate the unrecognized costs in terms of human health of these exploration, discovery and production operations—even if a small number of people are working on it. Successful efforts have taken a targeted, NIMBY approach, like the fight against frac sand mining in Allamakee County. By targeting Keystone XL, environmentalists set themselves up for failure. As a friend wrote me last night, “there are hundreds of pipelines in this country already—what’s one or two more?”

I also know unions favor building pipelines. Ken Sagar and Bill Gerhard laid out their position in a Dec. 11 opinion piece in the Des Moines Register. Only a cynic would say that Loebsack’s vote on Keystone XL was quid pro quo for union financial and canvassing support during the 2014 midterms. It is likely more complicated than that, but it had to have been a factor. Part of being Democratic is the fact that Democrats don’t always agree. Keystone XL and Iowa’s proposed Bakken Oil Pipeline are a prime examples of that. Loebsack’s framing of the explanation for his vote makes his sympathies for the union’s legislative priority clear.

“I was skeptical of side stepping the normal processes, but the jobs attached to building the Keystone Pipeline are too important and can no longer be tied to D.C. gridlock,” Loebsack said, according to Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times.

What I also know is October 2014 was the hottest month recorded on the planet since record-keeping began, according to the Washington Post. Yes, you skeptics, the world’s temperatures may have been higher or much colder in some prehistoric era. But what matters more is our civilization, and the changes produced by the industrial revolution are at risk. The underpinnings of basic facts about our lives, when the first frost comes, the amount of rainfall in a region, how we produce electricity, how we sequester carbon in the land, water sourcing, and others are all being undone.

It will take more than one vote in one governmental body to address these broader challenges. What I know is that is unlikely to happen in my lifetime unless we stop focusing on bright and shiny objects like Keystone XL.

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