What If You Build a Pipeline and There's Nothing to Pump Through It?

FILE - In this Thursday, March 22, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at the TransCanada Pipe Yard in Cushing, Ok
FILE - In this Thursday, March 22, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at the TransCanada Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla. The president says that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project from Canada to Texas should only be approved if it doesn't worsen carbon pollution. Obama says allowing the oil pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so is in the nation's interest. He says that means determining that the pipeline does not contribute and "significantly exacerbate" emissions. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

On July 14, 2011, at TomDispatch, Bill McKibben wrote that he and a few other "veteran environmentalists" had issued a call for activists to descend on the White House and "risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta's tar sands will only increase." It must have seemed like a long shot at the time, but McKibben urged the prospective demonstrators on, pointing out that "Alberta's tar sands are the continent's biggest carbon bomb," especially "dirty" to produce and burn in terms of the release of carbon dioxide and so the heating of the planet.

Just over four years later, the president, whose administration recently green-lighted Shell to do test-drilling in the dangerous waters of the American Arctic, opened the South Atlantic to new energy exploration and drilling earlier this year, and oversaw the expansion of the fracking fields of the American West, has yet to make, or at least announce, a final decision on that pipeline. Can anyone doubt that, if there had been no demonstrations against it, if it hadn't become a major issue for his "environmental base," the Keystone XL would have been approved without a second thought years ago? Now, it may be too late for a variety of reasons.

The company that plans to build the pipeline, TransCanada Corporation, already fears the worst -- a presidential rejection that indeed may soon be in the cards. After all, we've finally hit the "legacy" part of the Obama era. In the case of war, the president oversaw the escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan soon after taking office, sent in the bombers and drones, and a year ago plunged the country back into its third war in Iraq and first in Syria. Only late in his second term has he finally overseen an initiative worthy of a less warlike legacy: the embattled Iran nuclear deal. Similarly, the man who headed an "all of the above" administration on energy policy in an era in which the U.S. became "Saudi America" has only now launched a legacy-shaping climate change initiative that could matter, aimed at cutting back carbon dioxide emissions from coal-powered plants. So maybe in this legacy era, the Keystone XL will be next to fall. Or maybe Obama will let his final year and a half play out without a decision on whether or not to build it and turn the issue over to Hillary Clinton, who refuses to commit on the matter, or one of 17 Republicans, all of whom would build a pipeline to anywhere carrying anything rather than enact a single climate change initiative, no matter how mild.

Another factor has, however, entered the picture. As Michael Klare, TomDispatch's resident energy expert and the author of The Race for What's Left, explains, the dynamics of the energy industry may be changing in a way that could sink Canada's vast tar sands enterprise in a sea of red ink. If so, the tar sands industry, already hit hard by the plunge in oil prices last year, may face an even more rugged future.

"If you build it, he will come" is the classic tag line from the movie Field of Dreams. For the Keystone XL pipeline, however, that might someday have to be rewritten as: "If you build it, it won't come." Even if built, it might prove to be a pipeline to nowhere. Let Klare explain why in his new piece, "Double-Dip Oil Rout."