Oil pipelines and environment: a talk with Bill McKibben


Bill Mckibben is an author and environmentalist . He was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel’, and the Gandhi Peace Award. A former staff writer for the New Yorker, New York Review of Books,National Geographic and Rolling Stone.


As it is well known, one of the first actions undertaken by Trump at the dawn of his administration was to revive the works for the oil pipelines Dakota Access and Keystone XL. This choice manifestly opposes not only the stance taken by Obama’s Government on the issue, but its whole vision and legacy on environmental policies. As a matter of fact, the relevance ascribed to climate change issues by Obama is blatantly dismissed by the new President-elect and his administration. Just to mention a recent example, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt – nominated by Trump as Head of the Environmental Protection Agency – declared yesterday that carbon dioxide emissions do not crucially affect climate change, thus contrasting the stances of the vast majority of the scientists and the academics concerned. However, the statement was endorsed by the President, who frequently defined the environmental danger related to global warming as a Chinese hoax meant to undermine the US economy.

A similar scenario was largely predictable, given Trump’s commitment to openly – and provocatively – expressing such views, even before running for President. In this context, the revivification of the pipelines is not surprising, as well as Trump’s arguments in favour of such choice. Mr President and the Republicans argue that several construction jobs – 8,000 to 12,000 according to Energy Transfer, 28,000 according to Trump’s first declaration – will be created,  and that local economies will strongly benefit from such investment even in the long run. Moreover, the Government claims that the environmental danger is greater with transportations based on car rails or trucks than with pipelines. Finally, it is argued that American manufactory will benefit from the Government’s commitment to using exclusively American steel to build the pipes.

Predictably, not even one of these arguments convinced protesters, which include both climate activists and Native Americans, whose water supplies would be threatened by the massive flows of oil running through their sacred lands. They attacked the Government’s decision since it has been publicly announced, as they did in the times of Obama. We had an interesting talk with Mr Bill McKibben, one of the most influential environmental activists in the US, author of several books and articles ranging in topics from global warming to local communities to genetic engineering to family. He summarised the main points of the radical disagreement between activists and the White House on the pipelines and on the whole recent turn in the environmental policy of the US. For what concerns the creation of jobs in the short and the long run, he thinks that “the key question is ‘in the long run’. In the long run the pipeline will employ a few dozen people – that’s precisely why they want to build it”. This is a glaring limit in Trump’s proposal, and was diffusely reported by newspapers denouncing the “35 permanent jobs” that the pipelines will require. Moreover, protesters do not believe the story of the pipelines being the lesser evil compared to other transportation systems. Mr McKibben says “it’s nonsense. The deepest danger is what happens when one burns the oil that comes by pipe or train, and overheats the planet. And pipelines are a way to make it cheaper to produce oil, increasing the global warming hazard”. Nonetheless, the solution does not lie in the adoption of different transportation systems, or the creation of alternative routes: the real alternative “is called solar and wind-power, both of which are in abundance across the plains”.

With regards to the proposal of using American steel, it came out in recent days that no American steel will be used for the Keystone XL, as it is already under construction. Nonetheless, this did not determine a reversal in the line of action of the Government, which according to McKibben “seems intent on abandoning any commitment to action on climate change. Given the fact that we’ve just had the three hottest years in history, that’s not just noxious, it’s insane”.


By Leonardo Fiorespino

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