Pipelines and Public Justice

On Tuesday, February 24, President Barack Obama made a historic decision. He vetoed an omnibus  bill that would allow the development of Keystone XL – a massive pipeline intended to carry over 800,000 barrels a day of crude and bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands 1900 kilometres to Texas refineries. This decision was long-delayed and significant.

Obama has by no means followed a straight line to this veto. He campaigned on environmental leadership in 2008, but has ardently promoted oil and gas exploration as President. Still, it seems clear that he heard the message that many are concerned about pipeline development.

Many, most notably Bill McKibben and supporters of 350.org, have lobbied hard against the approval of Keystone XL. It isn’t that they believe that one pipeline will make a significant difference in the scale of climate change. Rather, it is symbolic of the larger ethical question about the future we want for ourselves and the planet.

The Prophets Lament

In Old Testament times, several prophets lamented the devastation of creation, recommended that the political leaders of the time change course, and prayed for the healing of the earth.

In the words of Hosea, “The land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing” (Hosea 4:3). Similarly, Jeremiah declared, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled” (Jeremiah 4: 23, 25).

Throughout the Bible, we read of God’s tremendous love for the earth. In Genesis, God declares the goodness of creation. In the Psalms the trees themselves sing for joy. And in the New Testament, nature parables illustrate the interconnectedness of all systems and beings.

The Problem with Pipelines

Farmers, indigenous people, cottagers, and environmentalists have all expressed concerns about pipeline development. These concerns include land and water use, potential spills, Aboriginal land claims, and habitat destruction – among others. Most importantly, however, pipeline development is inextricably linked to fossil fuel extraction. And we know that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, the vast majority of Alberta oil must stay underground.

If we take God’s call to care for creation seriously (not to mention Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions promises), not only should the Keystone veto stand, but additional measures should also be put in place to reorient our economy and safeguard the environment.

Several years ago, CPJ proposed five norms that provide a public justice lens on ecological justice:

  • respect for life,
  • advancing the common good,
  • the interconnectedness of all processes,
  • sustainability, and
  • peace.

It is useful to consider the Keystone XL decision in light of this framework.

Our current path – the one driven by frenetic oil sands exploration and pipeline development – is leading us to catastrophic climate change.

Infrastructure built today locks us into decades of a certain future development model. We go green now, or stay bitumen black for a generation, servicing billions in expensive and dirty investments that demand market access for their financial viability.

Without regulations or adequate fees on oil sands emissions, the industry is effectively allowed to throw its garbage into the town square (that is, send its emissions into the shared global atmosphere). There is indeed already a cost to dispose of this garbage, but it is paid by the commons – especially those living in the far North and Global South who are most vulnerable to climate change. As an extension of oil sands development, pipelines encourage further emissions, while also adding other risks along their path.

Already, we’re seeing species extinction, more frequent and more intense natural disasters, threats to human livelihoods and health. More exploration, development, and emissions will just make things worse. Such devastation can hardly be considered respectful of God’s beloved world and all life that God created.

Balancing Ethical Choices

Our economy, ecology, and society are all wrapped up in one another. It is clear that we need a more holistic approach, one that considers the health of the economy, to be sure, but also the well-being of plants and animals in the natural environment, as well as the sustainable livelihoods, lifestyles, and health of individuals, families, and communities.

In order to preserve the life of the planet, carbon consumption needs to be curbed significantly. Alternative approaches to energy development require investments. And responses to economic, social, and environmental crises must be integrated.

This isn’t the end of the Keystone XL approval process – the Canadian government continues to actively promote its development. As we contemplate what might come next, it is critical that we consider the ethics of proceeding with such a project.


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