For at least the past two decades, the American environmentalist movement has been split into two camps. On one side, less conspicuous, are the conservationists—dedicated to working with public and private actors to keep our air and water clean, preserve America’s natural beauty, and advance common-sense solutions to pressing issues like climate change. On the louder and more flamboyant side are the progressive activists, who prioritize heated rhetoric, symbolic measures, and political purity tests over practical solutions.
President Joe Biden’s recent slew of executive orders place him firmly on the activist side. The president’s day-one cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline is a textbook example of performative—and counterproductive—climate policy. The pipeline, which would have carried 830,000 barrels of crude oil from the sands of Alberta down to the U.S. Gulf Coast, was set to be the first-ever carbon-neutral project of its kind: its developer, TC Energy Corporation, had committed to achieving “net zero emissions across the project operations,” spending $1.7 billion on renewable-energy sources to build and operate the entire initiative, making Keystone “the most sustainable and environmentally friendly pipeline project that has ever been built,” in the words of the project’s president.
Rather than celebrate these proposals as a historic win for sustainability, left-wing climate groups lampooned the pipeline as the embodiment of corporate greed and environmental degradation. “Keystone became a symbol as much as a project,” wrote the Wall Street Journal. “Environmental activists seized on it as a rallying point, portraying it as epitomizing the U.S.’s reliance on fossil fuels.”
The crusade against Keystone XL is a testament to the profound unseriousness of the environmentalist Left. The symbolic victory of the pipeline’s cancellation will not have any measurable effect on the decarbonization of the U.S. economy. Keystone’s untimely demise will not change the rate of our national consumption of fossil fuels; instead, American consumers will simply be forced to buy more oil from countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela. More of our gas will be imported by plane or ship rather than from a net-zero emission pipeline—and we’ll pay more for it at the pump, too.
Working-class Americans, meantime, will feel the loss in more than just rising gas prices. More than 10,000 construction workers will lose their jobs, thanks to the president who campaigned as “just a scrappy kid from Scranton.” Before Biden’s executive order, Keystone XL construction firm TC Energy had reached an agreement with four major unions—the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipeﬁtters—to employ only unionized labor in the project. That would have included almost 60,000 direct and indirect jobs, including full-time employment for an estimated 13,200 construction workers (10,400 in the U.S., and 2,800 in Canada) and a total of $3.4 billion in wages. According to a general manager working on the pipeline, hundreds of those workers have already been laid off—in the middle of a pandemic and a historic recession.
Biden’s Keystone XL move, and his early actions on the environment more broadly, reflect the changing composition of the Democratic coalition, which is driven increasingly by the politics of its upwardly mobile, college-educated base, and less and less by the competing interests of its traditional working-class constituencies. The tensions between blue-collar Democrats and their wealthy progressive counterparts are particularly visible in environmental disputes. Last year, a bitter rift emerged in the Pennsylvania Democratic Party over the question of restricting or outright banning fracking, an industry that employs tens of thousands of workers in the state. The fight pits grassroots progressive organizers and climate activists against old-school trade-union Democrats.
Republicans should see Biden’s cancellation of Keystone as a golden opportunity to make inroads with traditionally Democratic constituencies that have been left behind by their party. Similarly, the sensible wing of the environmentalist movement should use the controversy as an opportunity to distance itself from the activist wing of the coalition. Common-sense, pro-growth solutions exist to pressing issues like climate change, and many could have bipartisan appeal if environmental advocacy groups make them a priority. But cancelling Keystone XL isn’t one of them.
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