Last week the now-former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, resigned amid a series of ethical breaches, including his cozy relationship with fossil fuel lobbyists. Government ethics experts said Pruitt’s connection to lobbyists working for the Canadian energy company Enbridge, at the time when the EPA approved expansion of an Enbridge pipeline, raised red flags. So-called environmental regulators like Scott Pruitt certainly can’t be trusted to uphold environmental laws.
The good news is that for every pipeline that is approved, we’re seeing vehement resistance. Last month Minnesota regulators approved Line 3, another controversial Enbridge pipeline that would cross lakes on Ojibwe treaty lands, affecting indigenous wild rice harvest, hunting and fishing. Following the news, Honor the Earth Executive Director and activist Winona LaDuke said “They have gotten their Standing Rock. We will do everything that is needed to stop this pipeline.”
Resistance to pipelines like Line 3 is growing because pipeline spills are so common—much more common than you would think. Indigenous and environmental groups will continue to resist new pipelines because spills jeopardize land and livelihoods, especially when the pipeline crosses ecologically and culturally important places. These are some of the issues we are tracking as part of the Climate Alliance Mapping Project, an initiative we started to address issues of climate justice through research, maps and digital stories.
The U.S. version of our map shows data pertinent to domestic climate justice demands, including: oil and gas pipelines and spills, power plants, waterways, native lands (as designated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) and public lands. We are working with climate justice organizations and indigenous peoples across the Americas to add digital stories with photos and narrations that talk about the social and environmental impacts of oil and gas infrastructure.
But public data already tells a story about pipeline spills. Since 1986 there have been over 8,000 "significant" oil and gas spills reported by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation. That's equivalent to a major spill every two day for the past 32 years. “Significant” spills have a very specific definition—they either caused a fire, left someone injured, involved a large volume of oil or gas release or resulted in over $50,000 in damages. PHMSA classifies over 1,500 of these incidents as "serious," meaning the spill resulted in a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization. Our interactive U.S. Climate Justice Map visualizes these spills alongside other data and stories.
New pipelines are also being resisted because they make no sense in the context of climate change. Take the now iconic Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry tar sands, some of the most carbon-intensive oil. According to a 2015 study funded by the Department of Energy, Canadian tar sands emits 18 percent more greenhouse gases when processed into gasoline compared to conventional crude. This exacerbates climate change at a time when a rapid transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy is urgently needed.
Given the narrowing carbon budget, which is the amount of carbon that can be emitted before breaching the 2°C degree limit to avoid dangerous climate change, two thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves must not be consumed. Under the more stringent 1.5 C degree target, 83 percent of fossil fuels must remain unburned and underground, according to a 2016 article. These numbers mean that any new fossil fuel infrastructure is simply incompatible with urgent climate goals.
Despite the ubiquity of spills and the scientific evidence that new fossil fuel infrastructure is inconsistent with climate action, regulators continue to approve new pipelines. In November of last year TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline spilled 9,700 barrels of crude oil in rural South Dakota making it the 7th largest oil spill in the US since 2010.
Just four days later, Nebraska regulators granted the extension of the Keystone pipeline as Keystone XL. If completed, Keystone XL will transport 830,000 barrels of heavy crude daily from the Alberta tar sands to Nebraska, where it connects to refineries as far south as the Gulf Coast in Texas. Although rejected by former President Obama due to the pipeline’s negligible impact on the nation’s economy, employment, gas prices and energy security, it was approved during Trump’s first days in office through an executive order.
To be sure, companies like Enbridge and TransCanada claim new pipelines will be safer than existing ones, and that alternative forms of transport like rail present their own risks. However, this argument assumes that new fossil fuel production is inevitable. Given the social, environmental and economic risks, we must begin the phase-out of fossil fuel infrastructure and instead invest in renewable energy. The popularity of electric vehicles such as those made by Tesla demonstrates the enormous potential for a renewable energy transition in the transportation sector that can be eventually powered by solar and wind as we green the electrical grid.
Proponents of new pipelines also argue that these infrastructure projects create important jobs. Upon signing the executive order to approve Keystone XL, President Trump remarked “A lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs. Great construction jobs.” According to a report by Cornell University, however, expected construction jobs are closer to 2,500–4,650 and just 35 percent are likely to be permanent, based on data from the U.S. State Department. Pipeline opponents note that renewable energy would be a better place to invest the $7 billion slated for Keystone XL. According to a World Bank report, wind and solar produce about 13.5 jobs per $1 million dollars spent in the U.S., compared to the 5.2 jobs created in oil and gas.
Trump recently approved number two EPA official Andrew Wheeler as Pruitt’s interim replacement. Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, signaling the continuation of a troubling pattern of environmental regulators with uncomfortably close ties to the fossil fuel companies they are supposed to regulate.
Because we can’t expect environmental regulators under the Trump Administration to make decisions on the behalf of people and the planet, fossil fuel divestment provides one of the more powerful actions we can take. Rainforest Action Network and several other environmental and indigenous organizations have assessed the private banks most responsible for backing fossil fuel development such as pipelines and are calling on us to divest from these banks and invest in sustainable alternatives.
We would be joining universities, foundations, pension funds, faith-based groups, family businesses, non-profit organizations, cities and individuals around the world—representing commitments of $6 trillion in assets—that have joined the Divest-Invest movement. Now more than ever, we need broad public participation in the Divest-Invest movement in order to shift investments away from new fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines toward a clean and renewable energy future.