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Keystone XL's week in review: Erica Alini

An eventful few days.

(Photo: courtesy Friends of the Earth)

(Photo: courtesy Friends of the Earth)

It’s been an eventful week for Keystone XL, but with two major political scandals raging—one in Ottawa and the other in Toronto—the pipeline didn’t receive as much press north of the border as it usually does. In case you missed them, here’s a rundown of the key news:

1. Coke piles: On Saturday, the top headline on the front page of the New York Times read: “From Canadian Oil, a Black Pile Rises in Detroit.” The story was about petroleum coke, a by-product of refining heavy oil, and how large amounts of it now cover an entire block of the city of Detroit. The stuff comes from a nearby refinery that has recently started processing oilsand crude from Alberta. Coke, the newspaper explained, is the “unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.” Worse still—or better still, for the reporter trying to arouse sympathetic readers—the pile belongs to Koch Carbon, owned by none other than the Koch brothers, the multimillionaire industrialists who bankrolled so many conservative campaigns.

The mountain of black gunk is admittedly unsightly, judging from the pictures, and it has upset Windsor, Ont., residents as well, who can see it from the other side of the river. Still, as Reuters columnist John Kemp pointed out, coke has been around long before Canada started developing the oilsands. California, with its heavy oil reserves, used to be the U.S.’s top producer of it. Coke is used as cheap fuel, and there’s a healthy demand for it in the U.S. and abroad. It does release copious amounts of CO2.

2. CO2: More negative coverage came as the world crossed an unfortunate threshold: Last week dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere reached four hundred parts per million, according to the oldest CO2 levels were last this high;” veteran New Yorker reporter Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, “the best guess is the mid-Pliocene, about three million years ago.” Her solution to halt our looming extinction? Stop the pipeline from Alberta.

Her arguments, it should be acknowledged, did contain a few caveats that Keystone opponents usually neglect to mention. On the supply side, she noted, there are many other sources of carbon dioxide, like conventional oil, natural gas and coal. On the demand side… well, demand is what drives supply. But instead of taking aim, say, at the U.S. coal industry and its growing exports to Europe now that cheaper natural gas has displaced domestic consumption, or call on state and federal governments to curb fossil fuel consumption with a carbon tax, her singular focus was on a Canadian pipeline that would transport oil across the continent at zero additional emissions.

3. Restive green grass roots: The bad news is that a number of environmentalist groups are pressuring Obama’s grass roots organization, Organizing for Action (OFA), to speak up against the Keystone XL. The good news is that OFA is refusing to do so. The advocacy group, which is run by some of Obama’s former top campaign aids, declined to take up the issue, as its mission is to advance the president’s agenda and the president does not yet have an official position on the matter, they said. It’s good to see that the president’s men (and women) are so carefully avoiding anything that could give the impression that the White House has already made up its mind. If the president approves the pipeline, though, he will need patch up his green credentials with some serious initiatives on climate change or risk forever alienating some of his staunchest supporters.

4. House Republicans approved another pro-Keystone bill: On Thursday, House Republicans passed their eighth (hopeless) bill to speed up construction of the pipeline. The draft legislation would allow Keystone godfather TransCanada to build the border-crossing northern portion of the pipeline without having to obtain permission to do so from the State Department. The White House has already said it will veto the bill if it makes it out of Congress (which it won’t, since the Democratic-controlled Senate won’t pass analogous legislation). Interestingly, 19 House Democrats voted in favour of it. That’s fewer than in the past, according to Politico, but the drop in support from across the aisle seemed to spring from concerns that the bill was trying to circumvent the president’s authority, rather than from a change of heart on Keystone.

Erica Alini is a California-based reporter and a regular contributor to, where she covers the U.S. economy. Follow her on Twitter: @ealini.