Keystone XL: Bad for jobs, country & planet

BY:Marc Brodine| February 13, 2014
Keystone XL: Bad for jobs, country & planet
A report to the National Board of the Communist Party, February 6, 2014

The struggle against the Keystone XL pipeline is currently one of the best known and most active environmental struggles. It is an opportunity to participate in this mass struggle, to educate millions more about the dangers of global climate change, and a way for the Communist Party to focus more of its efforts on environmental issues and on building coalitions that include environmental groups.

Part 1:  a few scientific facts behind the Keystone pipeline issue

  • Tar sands oil is among the dirtiest kind of fossil fuels, creating the most greenhouse gas emissions and chemical pollution in the extracting, transporting, refining, and burning.
  • The problems with tar sands are not limited to greenhouse gas emissions, but also to water pollution, birth defects, health problems for workers, release of cancer-causing chemicals into the air in the process of extracting oil from tar sands.
  • As well, there are pipeline dangers-spills, leaks, crossing land that could be seriously harmed by spills, affecting some endangered species. Pipes break and leak, and not always in predictable or preventable ways and not in ways that clean up nicely-every year there are hundreds of pipe failures of one kind or another, so no pipeline can guarantee its safety over the life of the line.
  • Pollution is created where the tar sands oil is refined-a recent study shows that refining tar sands creates about 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil refining.
  • There is pollution when the fuel is used (direct greenhouse gas emissions).
  • All the “Energy Independence for the US” stuff is totally irrelevant.The refined tar sands oil is going to refineries on the Gulf Coast for the specific reason that it will be easier to ship it elsewhere. It is not going to the US!
  • The number of real jobs created is much less than claimed by industry, and most of those jobs are temporary construction jobs, not permanent ones. We can create more jobs for less money with a green jobs program and investments in renewable energy, including specifically more construction jobs.

The most important problem with the pipeline: there is still increasing production of greenhouse gas emissions from our reliance on fossil fuels. We have to leave it in the ground!!!!! Figuring out better and cheaper ways to mine it, refine it, and ship it are all going in the wrong direction.

  • The struggle against the Keystone XL pipeline is not “the end”, it is not “game over” for the environment, but it is one more very serious escalation of our fossil fuel/greenhouse gas problem. If the pipeline is built, it will increase production of tar sands oil and be another missed opportunity to STOP!
  • On Chris Hayes MSNBC show, he explained that we need to think of our reliance on fossil fuels as an addiction, and every time we keep extracting more fossil fuels is a missed opportunity to begin to stop that addiction. Each time by itself is not the end of the world, but the accumulation of missed opportunities to move away from fossil fuels just mires us deeper in that addiction. 

Part 2: The Keystone XL pipeline struggles

Keystone struggles are important for many real reasons, but also for political and symbolic reasons. The right-wing understands this well-reports are that some Republicans in the House want to demand approval of the Keystone project in exchange for a one-year extension of the debt limit. They think this is a winning issue for them, a ‘two-fer’, since it seems to put them in public on the “right” side of the fight for jobs, and also serves their fossil fuel funders-for example the Koch Brothers reportedly stand to make tens of millions.

Even if the Keystone struggle is not the “perfect” one nor the final “game over” one, it is the biggest and best known current environmental struggle, it offers an important avenue to educate the public about broader issues of climate change and environmental crisis, and it offers opportunities to build important and lasting coalitions.

Where it is right now

  • The State Dept. just issued a revised environmental impact statement saying in part that the pipeline won’t cause very much more greenhouse gas emissions-this is based on several assumptions that are wrong, namely assuming that the tar sands will be dug up no matter whether or not there is a pipeline so the pipeline won’t increase emissions, since otherwise they will just ship the oil on trains-a false assumption.
  • The final recommendation of the State Dept. has not yet been made.
  • The final decision in Obama’s hands-the President and Secretary of State John Kerry, are “waiting for reports from other agencies” before making a final decision-EPA, Energy Dept., others (there is a 90 day review process underway).
  • Starting Feb. 5th, 30 day public comment period. A previous public comment period drew 1.2 million comments, most against -this was a key factor forcing the State Department to begin another environmental statement revision.
  • The timeline for a final decision-one, no one knows for sure; two, probably within the year, Obama is obviously delaying a decision as long as he can, which gives time for struggle and pressure-his decision will come in May at the earliest, but will likely be made later. How this plays out as an impact on the 2014 fall elections is obviously a big deal for Congressional Republicans and Democrats and for Obama. Whatever happens, final decision either way or another delay, it will be an issue this fall.

The main initiator of action on this is:

  •, which is a web-based campaign on climate issues. is increasingly offering tools for local groups to use to organize, providing a national framework without micro-managing or limiting kinds and places of struggle. Innovative forms are encouraged and publicized, like building a solar-powered barn on the path of the pipeline, for one example. The flip side is that there is a lack of actual organization and an over-reliance on spontaneity and media coverage. also plays the leading role coordinating and publicizing divestment campaigns
  • Broad coalitions (mostly not including unions) of many environmental groups -almost 300 anti-Keystone demonstrations and candlelight vigils have been held since the revised State Dept. report came out, with about 10,000 attendees.
  • There are important land and sovereignty issues due to the pipeline crossing Native American reservations, with court challenges and civil disobedience pledged by several tribes, including the Oglalla Sioux and several Lakota tribes. At least some of the activism on this has been inspired by the Canadian-based “Idle No More” movement begun by members of First Nation tribes
  • Some farmers and ranchers in Plains states are being drawn into the struggle, for land use reasons
  • There are various petition drives aimed at Obama, at Congress, and at the corporation seeking pipeline approval.

A key to building the most widespread opposition is connecting this issue to jobs struggles-not doing so enough is a big weakness of the current environmental movement, including This is changing, as many environmental groups seek alliances with labor-this is a key contribution we can make. There are serious efforts to split the labor movement, with appeals to construction workers. We can support and initiate efforts to build a real jobs program all can unite around. At the AFL-CIO convention, efforts in this direction have already started, with a panel on fixing existing gas pipelines in our country, many of which are many decades old and past their normal lifespan. This would create more construction jobs than the Keystone XL pipeline.

Part 3: How this fits into a broader environmental strategy

There are many other environmental struggles going on right now-the Keystone struggle is just one. We should not approach this as the single most important environmental struggle, but find ways to unite with the millions of people in our country, and hundreds of millions around the world, who are already in action.

If an organization, a union for example, is not ready to or is hesitant to participate in the Keystone pipeline struggle, there are many environmental struggles which they may be ready for. The Keystone struggle is NOT the be-all and end-all-groups and organizations may not be ready to work on that but are ready to work on divestment of public funds from fossil fuel companies, or on the chemical spill in West Virginia which polluted the drinking water for 300,000 people, or on city or state efforts to reduce emissions.

Other current struggles:

  • Opposition to Coal trains, in the Northwest and Montana and Wyoming
  • Opposition to new Coal-fired plants
  • Battles over EPA regulations for coal-fired plants-a Congressional issue
  • Chemical spills like the West Virginia water/chemical crisis, affecting hundreds of thousands
  • Opposition to fracking — There are many certain and likely dangers of fracking:
    • Water pollution
    • Chemical waste
    • Increasing danger of earthquakes — one example is a Texas town where there were no earthquakes for many decades, which is now having hundreds of small shocks within a matter of months
  • The pipe break in North Carolina spilling coal ash into a river.
  • Divestment Movement
    • A key way for people to connect to the fight to keep climate change from becoming an irreversible global catastrophe is the growing movement to divest funds from fossil fuel companies. College and university campus campaigns, shareholder campaigns, efforts to divest public funds and pension funds from fossil fuel companies. This gives people a way into the struggle, a handle they can use to feel they are having a real impact, and one that doesn’t rely on the current political makeup of governing bodies nationally or in the states. 
    • There are starting to be financial investment professionals who advise divestment, since much of the purported value of fossil fuel companies lies in their ownership of “known reserves” of fossil fuels, much of which must remain in the ground if we are to keep climate change within a range that fits with human and agricultural tolerances.

There are many efforts and arguments which seek to divert environmental struggles and the unity necessary to win them.

  • The oil and gas industry seeks to increase confusion about the importance of moving away from fossil fuels, even about whether we need to or not
  • Efforts are being made, including by anti-union politicians, to keep unions from joining the struggle, using the desperate need for jobs to pressure especially the construction unions.
  • There is competition over the “right” strategy within the environmental movement, including some who want to condemn all Democrats because what they propose isn’t enough, who condemn all unions because some unions oppose particular environmental efforts, and who argue for some kind of personal purity rather than understanding the class aspects of the challenges humanity faces.
  • “Energy Independence” and the call for an “all of the above” strategy which excuses continued reliance on fossil fuels as the largest provider of energy for production, transportation, and agriculture.
  • There is a claim that natural gas is a “Bridge Fuel” which has already reduced our greenhouse gas emissions. If one small part of an aggressive strategy to develop alternative renewable energy sources, this can be one piece of a comprehensive program, but usually it is used as a delaying tactic, to promote natural gas company profits at the expense of increasing alternative energy sources that do not rely on fossil fuels.
  • Exxon Mobil has a current ad campaign, using obviously true but partial statements to bolster implied false claims. They say, for example, that we are stronger if we have a variety of energy sources, which is true, if you ignore that we need to switch from much of our current fossil fuel energy, and getting people to ignore that is the whole point of the ad campaign. The oil industry understands that real public knowledge about the changes necessary to address climate change threatens their long-term profits and their ability to function with real social and governmental oversight.

The fight for unity-the special role of the Communist Party

  • As in other arenas of struggle, our special role involves fighting for unity; pointing out the links between issues, movements, and organizations; stepping up the struggle against racism in all struggles; and fighting for working class participation and leadership, not to the exclusion of other forces but as essential partners in broad-based coalition building.
  • The international nature of this and many environmental problems and struggles requires addressing the racism implicit or explicit in much of the conservative commentary which wants us to ignore suffering elsewhere in the world, as not our concern-nations whose citizenry mainly consist of people of color are facing some the earliest and most devastating consequences of global climate change-the Philippines for example-up to and including small island nations which will, this century, pass out of existence, buried by rising oceans.
  • Tactical flexibility: The Keystone struggle doesn’t address EPA regulations for new and for existing coal-fired electric generating plants, it doesn’t address the numerous other aspects of the production and distribution process that need to change-so we should get very involved but should not focus on Keystone to the exclusion of all other environmental issues.
  • Another aspect of tactical flexibility is how we approach Obama-we should recognize the objective limitations of what he can accomplish given Republican obstruction and given the existing economic balance of forces, praise him when he makes positive moves (of which there have been many) and criticize him when he makes wrong ones-without demonizing him or ignoring the differences between him and the ultra-right, another common failing of many “absolutists” in the environmental movement. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced the creation of seven regional hubs to provide farmers with scientific knowledge about how to adapt to and mitigate climate change, another item to add to the list of positive accomplishments. The “blame Obama” approach will be especially a problem if he approves the pipeline, escalating the rhetoric condemning him. Already there is a strong strain which condemns him for not having killed the project already. Yet we also can’t ignore that what he proposes is not enough. Finding the right balance will continue to be a tricky issue.
  • We should not approach environmental struggles and organizations as just another item to add to an already long list. There are environmental aspects of all the struggles we are already engaged in, in all the places we are currently working. The organizations we are already working in can participate in coalitions, so that environmental work is not separate and apart-and this is becoming more and more true as time goes on. Environmental issues are about how humanity survives, since all humanity requires natural resources for goods and services and for the most basic of human needs, water, air, and food.
  • We need to constantly fight the false “economy versus the environment” argument, pitting jobs right now against longer-term human survival. Workers want to work, and want to work at living wage jobs, and want to not destroy our future in the process. We must fight for positive, beneficial jobs for all-construction jobs in infrastructure, in expanding solar and wind power, in rehabbing existing buildings, to mention just some of the possibilities. In most cases, doing work in an environmentally sustainable way requires more workers, not fewer.

Due to the nature of the environmental crises we face and the long-term aspects of the natural systems involved, environmental struggles are going to be with us for the rest of our lives. They will only get more important. They are already playing and will play a bigger part in most major electoral struggles for the foreseeable future. They offer a way to argue for the necessity of socialism.

There are many ways for clubs and members to be involved in the Keystone struggles: petitions, candlelight vigils, demonstrations, joining or following, letters to Congressional reps, getting resolutions passed in union locals and other organizations, making a public comment, to mention some.

The Keystone Struggle is growing, is a flashpoint of political conflict between left and right, will educate and activate millions, and, win or lose, be a turning point in our fight for humanity’s future.

PHOTO: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by chesapeakeclimate


    Marc Brodine is Chair of the Washington State CPUSA. A former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and answers many web site questions. Marc is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change.

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