Columns » Opinion

Keystone blight

By Mason Herson-Hord ’15, Dayton Martindale ’15, Rachel Parks ’15, Alvaro Sottil ’16, Katie Horvath ’15, Damaris Miller ’15, Nikolaus Hofer ’17, Divya Farias ’15, Parth Parihar ’15 and Lucie Wright ’14.

On March 10, guest contributor Duncan Hosie ’16 wrote “The Case for Keystone,” a well-articulated yet misleading op-ed in support of completing Keystone XL, a stalled pipeline project intended to transport Alberta’s tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico. Allow us, some of those very students he described as “harming our national security interests, economic growth and even environmental well-being,” to respond to these claims. We see issues with his argument’s specifics, but, details aside, we believe that climate change discourse at Princeton and elsewhere needs to be reframed. We need an approach that avoids defeatist assumptions in favor of one committed to climate justice and focused on the urgent realities facing our generation.

Hosie focuses on national security, asserting that purchasing more of our oil from Canada would allow us to avoid dealing with less stable regimes. But oil companies would use the pipeline to largely bypass U.S. consumers and ship tar sands oil from refineries on the Gulf Coast to world markets, so the pipeline would not reduce American dependence on overseas oil. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, like environmental activists, recognizes the realities of climate change and is developing long-term strategies to deal with the violence and unrest that will accompany the resulting natural disasters, famines, political disorder and economic collapse. Keystone purportedly attempts to solve a short-term national security dilemma by exacerbating a much more far-reaching one.

Many people, including Hosie, cite a figure claiming that the construction of the pipeline would create 42,100 jobs. However, although Keystone would create thousands of short-term construction jobs, according to that same State Department report, the project would create only 35 permanent jobs lasting beyond the two-year construction period. The $3.4 billion in potential revenue also pales in comparison to the $65 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Sandy alone, a storm whose intensity has been directly linked to the warming of our oceans. Between the costs of droughts, soil loss, floods, powerful storms, heat waves and more, there is no question that it is cheaper to avert climate change now than to deal with its consequences later.

It is Hosie’s argument about environmental impacts, focused on transport and the perceived false dichotomy between economics and environmentalism, though, that really misses the point. The basic facts are these: We are rapidly approaching the absolute warming limit of two degrees Celsius already agreed upon by the international community, and to avert disaster, we can pour no more than 565 additional gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. There are 240 gigatons of carbon stored in Alberta’s tar sands alone, not including the carbon stored in the boreal forests that are clear-cut to reach them. We simply cannot afford to burn tar sands oil, period, which emits 17 percent more greenhouse gas in its extraction and use than regular oil and would dash any hopes for an ecologically or economically stable future.

Stopping the pipeline will not in itself be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. But it is a crucial step in the right direction. These oil companies have admitted bluntly that the pipeline will allow them to extract more intensively, and cutting them off wherever possible will weaken economic incentive and political will to continue tar sands development. Nor are we alone. To assume that the decisions of other governments such as Canada and China are static is to ignore their own internal political struggles over greenhouse gas emissions and ecological devastation. Our allies to the north in the climate justice movement — such as the indigenous grassroots resistance movement Idle No More — are putting their own bodies on the line to defend their communities and the rest of humanity from the consequences of extracting and burning tar sands oil. Just last week, the Chinese government itself “declared war on pollution.”

Proponents of Keystone XL are operating under the presumption that American and international dependence on oil is not subject to change. But there is nothing “inevitable” about other countries blundering down the path of runaway carbon emissions, and American myopia should not be inevitable either. The false choice of “they burn it or we burn it” amounts to the difference between jumping off a 100-story building and a 90-story one. The assertion that “the United States will inevitably need to procure crude oil for a long time” assumes as its baseline that we will not make the transition before it is too late and so refuses to consider any alternatives.

We reject such defeatism. The discussion should not be about better or worse ways to burn tar sands oil or whether it should be refined in Texas or China. For our generation, and for anyone who believes that the stability of the planet’s climate is more important than returns for fossil fuel companies, the only relevant goal is keeping it in the ground. Our generation’s survival strategy needs to be centered around stalling and ultimately stopping tar sands extraction as soon as possible. The time to act was yesterday, and we can bury our heads in the tar sands no longer. Another world is possible. We must say “no” to Keystone XL.

Herson-Hord, Martindale, Parks, Sottil, Horvath, Miller, Hofer, Farias, Parihar and Wright can be reached at

comments powered by Disqus