(Credit: Jeff Malet/MaletPhoto.com)

On March 8, the Senate narrowly rejected an amendment to a transportation bill to force the approval of the TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700 mile pipeline that would bring heavy tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas to be exported abroad. The pipeline would be the longest oil pipeline outside of Russia and China, which would exacerbate the global climate change crisis.

The Republican Senators’ amendment attempted to eliminate the need for a federal permit for TransCanada to build a pipeline that crosses international borders. The maneuver was essentially an empty political response to the growing anger over gas prices. The construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would not be complete until at least 2014, it would not add substantially more oil to the U.S. market, and it’s projected potentially to raise gas prices for farmers in the Midwest.

Furthermore, the 56 senators that voted in favor of the amendment received 500% more donations from the gas and oil industry than those that voted against it. So rather than responding to concerns of the public, the 45 Republicans and 11 Democrats that voted in favor of the amendment were doing the bidding of the gas and oil industry.

President Obama personally called Democratic senators to urge them to reject this proposal. However, we should not be under the illusion that the Obama administration opposes the pipeline in principle. On the contrary, Obama is preparing to go forward with its construction after the 2012 elections are over.

At the end of February 2012, the Obama administration “welcomed” news that construction on the southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, would begin soon as a stand-alone project, echoing Republican talking points that the pipeline would “help address the bottleneck of oil.”

The southern half of the pipeline does not require a presidential approval because it does not cross international borders. It does, however, require the U.S. government to seize private land using an eminent domain law so that TransCanada can build their pipeline where they see fit.

Meanwhile, Democratic Party stalwart and former president Bill Clinton recently urged the public to “embrace” the pipeline.

Opposing the Route, Not the Pipeline

When Obama took office, the Keystone XL pipeline was expected to be approved, a “done deal,” with the Secretary of State Clinton saying she was “inclined” to grant a permit. However, because of a massive outcry from the public – over 1,200 activists arrested for civil disobedience in the front of the White House, over 12,000 encircled it in protest, and the newly sparked Occupy Wall Street movement – the pipeline decision was postponed last November until 2013 – after the 2012 elections.

Throughout the fall, protesters confronted Obama at nearly every public campaign stop. This unprecedented mass civil disobedience by the environmental movement, particularly the two-week sit-in outside the White House, proved to be far more effective than the typical lobbying of corporate controlled politicians. Protestors brought attention to a project of which most Americans were unaware and forced the Obama administration to fully review the environmental impacts and its effect on global climate change.

Then, in January 2012, Obama was given an easy out and rejected the pipeline application because Republicans forced him to decide on the project before “a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact” was determined.

The Obama administration cited legitimate environmental concerns raised by the protestors and state governments impacted by the pipeline but ignored the arguments on how opening up the tar sands would hinder efforts to mitigate climate change. Instead, the Obama administration focused their opposition only on the northern portion of the pipeline, which will run from Alberta, Canada to Oklahoma.

TransCanada wanted to build the pipeline through one of the largest freshwater reservoirs, the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 30% of the freshwater to Midwest irrigated crops and about 80% of the freshwater to over 2 million people in the region. It’s important to note that the portion of the pipeline already in existence, running from North Kansas to North Oklahoma, has already leaked 14 times.

Yet, Obama still supports building the pipeline, albeit by a different route. Nevertheless, by rejecting only the current pipeline application, Obama was able to appear on the side of a large part of his voting base, environmental activists. Meanwhile, TransCanada is preparing to reapply with a new northern route mapped out.

Create Millions of Green Union Jobs

Even if the new route circumvents the Ogallala Aquifer, 6,000 temporary jobs are not worth the environmental destruction to an area the size of Florida. Even worse, adding substantially more heat-trapping carbon dioxide to our atmosphere would further exacerbate the urgent climate change crisis. Several labor unions, such as the TWU and ATU transit unions, have laudably come out against this disastrous project even though it will create some jobs.

Instead of going ahead with this project, we need to massively increase taxes on corporations and the rich to fund a massive public works program, transitioning our economy from non-renewable, polluting energy sources to clean, renewable, and sustainable sources. This could create millions of high-wage union jobs building a new energy grid, solar panels, and windmills and retrofitting buildings and homes to be as energy efficient as possible.

With gas prices on the rise this election year, Republicans will likely continue pushing the debate on Keystone XL, painting the Democrats as “opponents” of the pipeline. However, Obama and the Democrats aren’t motivated by the concerns of most ordinary people. They are motivated by the interests of their oil-addicted corporate backers, as well as fears that a backlash from their voting base could threaten both the political viability of the pipeline that they support as well as their own narrow electoral interests.

While we should welcome Obama’s limited action halting the immediate construction of the northern portion of Keystone XL, clearly we cannot rely on the Obama administration or his party to put a complete stop to this disastrous pipeline.

Rather than putting our hopes in supporting the “lesser evil” Democrats, we need to focus our efforts on continuing to build an independent grassroots movement against this project and supporting independent, left-wing candidates in the 2012 elections. If we are serious about doing what is necessary to transition our society away from unsustainable energy, we have to recognize that we are going to be the ones to lead the way, not Obama and the Democrats.

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