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Fighting the Wrong Fight: Environmental Justice and the Keystone Pipeline

In the preamble of the United States Constitution, the Founding Fathers established their intentions to provide a document that ensures the domestic tranquility, general welfare, common defense, and justice for all American citizens with the hopes of providing a “more perfect Union.” Ironically, in the highly publicized arguments concerning the Keystone XL Pipeline, many of these core values are being violated.  Parties on either side of the debate often get lost in the mainstream problems ignoring the smaller, but equally important, environmental justice issues that will affect many disadvantaged individuals if pipeline is built.  The fact that this fight fails to address these underprivileged people poses a different argument entirely; the question now should be whether or not the right battle even being fought?

On the surface, proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline that will connect Canadian tar sand reserves to oil refineries in the U.S. point to increased energy security, a boost in America’s post-recession economy, and a promise of job opportunities.  On the other hand, challengers to its construction highlight oil spill risks, potential damages to the Ogallala Aquifer, and climate change problems associated with fossil fuel dependency.  The giant oil companies and elite environmental groups focus their attention to these extremely political issues and use the mainstream media outlets to convey their message to the unsuspecting general public.  The controversy that ignites creates a partisan divide between supporters and contenders that unfortunately acts as a mask that shrouds the deeper, more direct, environmental justice issues that arise.

Hiding behind the veil of prominent political topics like new jobs and climate change are disadvantaged people facing the environmental justice problem of not having the ability to voice their concerns.  This participatory injustice is exemplified in a letter sent to the U.S. State Department from thirteen northern plains native groups with reference to the project’s draft environmental impact assessment (DEIS).  The letter stressed that public participation was limited by short notice meeting notices, limited availability to DEIS hard copies, and the inaccessibility to the document’s online versions due to the inadequate internet connections of the rural residents.

Although the native groups provided a suggestion for the denial of the Keystone Pipeline’s Presidential Permit application, they also included a recommendation to revise the DEIS so that the environmental impacts directly affecting their communities would be properly addressed.  Since the native groups presented options that both supporters and opponents of the pipeline would back shows that the debate’s resolution may boil down to the opposing sides changing their argument’s perspective.

Another instance of an environmental justice issue being lost in the disputes over the Keystone XL is occurring in Port Arthur.  This Texas town is the home to numerous industrial facilities that will benefit from the increased flow of oil from Canada.  Along with these benefits come environmental justice problems that the city is all too familiar with.  The Motiva refinery has the chance to become the largest refinery in the world if it begins to utilize the oil from the tar sands but, unfortunately, it has produced health problems for the poor, minority residents that live across the facility’s fence-line for years.  This creates a complex problem in which community members have to choose between a job that supports their families and living in conditions that are responsible for poor health.

Since Port Arthur has one of the highest unemployment rates in Texas, the promise of new jobs may result in the support of the pipeline by some residents.  Conversely, many economically disadvantaged working-class minorities are fighting against continued exposure to pollutants from the facilities.  The stale mate that results from these opposing arguments ought to be looked at in a different way; the battle should not be for or against the pipeline but instead should be aimed at fighting against the environmental justice issue it will violate.

It is true that the plan laid out by our Founding Fathers in the United States Constitution remains the solid backbone of a dominant world power but the quest to provide a more perfect union is still underway.  As the debate concerning the Keystone XL Pipeline’s construction lingers, dominant energy companies and powerful environmental groups will continue to base their arguments on the issues that create the most noise in today’s American democratic society.  Sadly, the opinions of underprivileged individuals like the northern plain native groups and Port Arthur residents often are hidden beneath the surface of these overriding political views.   If we want to live in a country that provides general welfare, common defense, and justice for all American citizens, the basis of these mainstream arguments must also address the interests of all citizens and include environmental justice issues that will directly affect these disadvantaged people.

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