Segment of TransAlaskan Pipeline near Fairbanks

By David Dannecker
Senior Editor

The Keystone XL pipeline extension has been back in the news recently, thanks in part to an effort by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to hold a Senate vote on the project last month which ultimately failed by a razor-thin margin. For those who don’t know, the pipeline first proposed back in 2008 would run from Alberta to Nebraska, delivering crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has been a major point of contention between environmentalists and the Canadian petrochemical company TransCanada since its first proposal. Polling suggests that the proposal enjoys majority support among Americans, although support has been slipping since a high about a year and a half ago. With the special interest proxy war in its seventh year, it is hard to get a handle on what the actual facts are surrounding Keystone XL and what effects it would have if it received the green light for construction. It seems that the level of misinformation in the debate could be a confounding factor when it comes to gauging public support; very few people are likely to know the details of the project, especially those that haven’t been following the issue. Figures for job creation vary wildly, as do claims about its safety, and the broader environmental impact the project could have. So without further ado, let’s delve into some of the arguments over Keystone XL.

Job creation is one of the primary arguments in favor of the pipeline. It’s true that infrastructure projects often are a big help toward creating jobs and spurring economic growth. However, reports of the number of jobs that Keystone XL could create are inconsistent. The figures on TransCanada’s website suggest an estimate of 9,000 construction jobs for the project, while other sources suggest a more modest 2,000 construction jobs, with those positions only lasting a couple of years. The State Department found that the number of permanent jobs created by Keystone XL (i.e. those jobs that would outlast the construction phase of the project) would equal a paltry 50 employees. To put those figures in some kind of context, the United States as a whole added 214,000 jobs in the month of October this year. Even the higher job estimates cited by TransCanada represent less than five percent of one month’s national job growth. If job creation is the main reason behind Republican support for the project, one has to wonder why other infrastructure initiatives with ostensibly greater job creation potential often meet with tepid Republican support at best.

Turning to claims about the pipeline’s safety, TransCanada appears confident that the new branch of the Keystone pipeline will be the safest ever constructed. Seeing as the new pipeline will have the benefit of the last few years of cutting edge technological advancements that weren’t available to the earlier phases of the pipeline, this may be the case. However, Media Matters points out that in spite of similar language before the original Keystone pipeline, it suffered a dozen spills in just its first year. Oil pipelines have a poor track record in the U.S. in general with over 110 million gallons spilled in the last 25 years. And while the pipeline has been rerouted to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area of Nebraska, the new route still threatens drinking water, including crossing an important aqueduct, which would be vulnerable to contamination should a spill occur in the vicinity. TransCanada has assured the public that it is committed to containment and restoration in the event of any spills or leaks, but even so, given the history of pipeline shortcomings and TransCanada’s own recent record of overselling the safety of its delivery infrastructure, treating safety claims with some modest skepticism seems appropriate.

What about the environmental impact of Keystone XL? Would it be the harbinger of climatic doom that environmentalists have painted it to be? Firstly, tar sands are one of the least efficient sources for obtaining fossil fuels. Because the crude oil is found in an amalgam of sand, clay, and bitumen, extraction is extremely difficult. The extraction process itself requires a great deal of natural gas and water to isolate the crude oil, and that’s before the transportation and refinement processes. So, yes, tar sands as a fuel source are pretty awful for the environment, and that’s not even taking into account the significant deforestation connected with mining tar sands. Some defenders of Keystone XL argue that Alberta’s tar sands are going to be utilized with or without Keystone, so the pipeline itself should be seen as a net zero as far as emissions go. It’s true that TransCanada is exploring other options for delivering the crude oil to refineries, including sending the oil by rail or by retrofitting Canadian pipelines to handle crude oil in a separate project known as Energy East. However, rail transport has been under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of a couple of explosive disasters, and neither of these alternatives would be as cost-effective as Keystone XL would be for TransCanada, which explains their dogged determination to see the proposal approved. Given the opposition that each of these approaches is facing, the development of Alberta’s tar sands is no sure thing. The value of extraction relies on the possibility and ease of subsequent transport, so while Keystone XL isn’t the only option Canadian energy companies have, its existence would likely facilitate and foster future development.

While disagreements over the merits of Keystone XL continue to exist, and are likely to persist until the project is either approved or denied for good, it is possible to isolate some plausible parameters to frame the debate. Sourcing tar sands for crude oil is bad for the environment. While Keystone is not the only option for crude oil delivery, it would likely speed up tar sand development in Alberta and so hasten the release of their greenhouse gases. The prospects for Keystone job creation are not likely to be very significant, and there are plenty of non-fossil-fuel-related infrastructure alternatives to consider if temporary job creation is the goal. It’s hard to predict the exact likelihood of pipeline malfunctions, since accidents are by their very nature unpredictable, but the position of the pipeline route and the recent history of pipeline technology do not support the idea that Keystone XL would be as safe as TransCanada claims. As the facts surrounding this project find their way into the public debate, we might expect that the polls will continue to decline. President Obama has recently signaled his own awareness of the project’s shortcomings. While the proposal itself is tied up while a legal challenge is settled in Nebraska’s Supreme Court, Obama’s opposition to Keystone XL looks like it will be the deciding factor, even in the face of a new Republican-controlled Congress. Since Canadian oil companies are the only certain beneficiaries of Keystone XL’s construction, the project seems unlikely to move forward, what with Obama positioning climate change as one of the defining issues of the final years of his presidency.

Image by Maureen

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by Rashika Rakibullah
Staff Writer

The recent kidnapping and disappearance of 284 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamist group Boko Haram has captured the world’s attention, sparked the popular Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and brought attention to the tumultuous situation in Africa’s most populous country. The organization has released videos claiming to have converted the girls to Islam and speaking of their plans to sell them into slavery or marry them off to their members. Although the kidnapping is the most prominent incident to date, the conflict in Nigeria between militant Islamic groups and the secular government and Christian minority dates back to the late 1990s. Boko Haram is the largest such militant group and has existed since 2002. Since then, they have carried out numerous bombings, assassinations and other attacks that have claimed approximately 10,000 lives in the last decade. Despite the worldwide concern for the missing girls, it is unclear how the Nigerian government—even with the support of the international community—can bring them back, given the nature of the conflict.

Founded by a university-educated, English-speaking man named Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram’s stated goal is to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria based on Shariah law. They oppose all aspects of Westernization, which they believe has corrupted the country; they see it as the basis of the crime and lawlessness that is prevalent throughout the nation. According to the group, activities that are deemed “Western” include voting in elections, wearing Western-style shirts and pants, and attending non-religious schools. Proponents of Boko Haram’s version of Islam insist that participation in such activities are “haram,” or forbidden and unlawful. They are especially critical of girls receiving education, arguing that they should instead be married. Despite its religious affiliation, Boko Haram does not discriminate when it comes to victims—ordinary Muslims and Christians, religious authorities, and followers of Nigeria’s tribal religions have all been kidnapped, assassinated, or attacked by the group.

For the first seven years after its founding, Boko Haram existed peacefully for the most part. Yusuf established schools and religious centers in remote, poverty-stricken areas, attracting students and followers from throughout the country as well as neighboring nations. In 2009, however, Yusuf was killed while in government custody and leadership of the group transferred to Abubakar Shekau, the current head. That same year, the government intensified its efforts to suppress the group, carrying out military operations against the organization’s infrastructure and jailing or killing many members. This was a turning point for Boko Haram, and the organization soon began a deadly insurgency in an attempt to overthrow the secular (but mostly Christian-led) government. In the state of Borno, where the kidnapping of the girls occurred, confrontation with the military led to a state of emergency being declared in May 2013. It is still in place today.

At the root of the conflict between Boko Haram supporters and the rest of Nigerian society are the country’s religious demographics, borne from Nigeria’s colonial history. Muslims constitute the majority of the population (50%) by a narrow margin and live mainly in the northern part of the country. Meanwhile, Christians make up 48% and inhabit the central and southern regions. The geographical split is the result of two distinct areas having been unified by the British into one protectorate during its occupation, despite the ethnolinguistic, social, economic, and political differences between the two. This resulted in differing conditions in the two halves of the country, a division that continued through independence in 1960, sparked a brutal civil war in the late ‘60s and still exists to this day. The oil-rich, Christian South has always enjoyed greater economic success due to its coastal location while the poorer Muslim North has struggled to achieve the same level of prosperity. This has exacerbated existing tensions between the various ethnic and religious groups.

Following independence and the civil war, the country was ruled by military dictatorships until 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, became Nigeria’s first democratically elected President. His administration was followed by the short rule of Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim, after which current President Goodluck Jonathan, also a Christian, came to power in 2010. The move towards democratization was accompanied by a new Constitution, enacted in 1999, which enshrined the right to freedom of religion and the right to change religions. In response to the Nigerian government’s evolution into a mainly Christian-led and nominally secular state, groups like the Boko Haram emerged to counter what they saw as the eradication of Nigeria’s Islamic history and identity. Since 2000, they have succeeded in implementing Shariah law in 12 northern states and have been vocal of their desire to continue the trend.

As mentioned, the kidnapping is by far the most prominent of Boko Haram’s recent actions and has prompted global outrage and calls for action from dignitaries such as First Lady Michelle Obama. Unfortunately, it is unclear what the best action to take would be at this point. Earlier this week, the Nigerian government committed to sending its military after Boko Haram, a move heralded by the international community after weeks of inaction. There is no guarantee, however, that the military will be successful in combating Shekau and his men. Armed forces have been actively battling Boko Haram for the past few years but have proved to be woefully incompetent in combating the insurgency. In one particular episode, authorities announced that Shekau had been killed during clashes with the police in 2009, suggesting that with his death would come the decline of the group’s influence. The next year, he suddenly appeared in videos released by Boko Haram, proving he was alive and well, shaming the Nigerian government.

There have also been calls for the United States and other global powers to intervene, and President Obama has already sent a group of military and law enforcement officials to aid in the search for the girls. Foreign interference in the conflict, however, is also not an optimal strategy. Boko Haram are by definition anti-West; they exist to resist Western influence on Nigeria. For Western powers to become involved seems at best counterproductive, as involvement could lead to further (and intensified) violence. Worse, it could also legitimize the group’s mission and goals to Nigerians aware of the United States’ deplorable history of recent foreign interventions. As reported in a popular article on the blog “Compare Afrique” this week, the U.S. routinely sends costly military missions to various parts of Africa for unknown reasons with unknown results in the unspecified name of “national interest.” Most of these are covert, and so we don’t know the merit or stakes of these missions, but what we do know is disheartening: drone attacks, U.S.-backed coups that topple elected officials and support for questionable regimes. Many have also pointed to parallels between this situation and U.S. involvement in Uganda following the #Kony2012 campaign, another social media driven cause that affected U.S. foreign policy in Africa, but with no tangible results to show except wasted manpower and resources.

As this article goes to press, Boko Haram has offered to return the girls in exchange for the release of 4,000 of its members and supporters who are currently imprisoned. For their part, the Nigerian government has indicated that they are participating in negotiations with the group, although they have ruled out a prisoner exchange. While negotiating with terrorists is not a perfect solution for any government, Nigerian leaders would do well to recognize that it may be the only viable choice to ensure the safety of the girls without causing further collateral damage through military action. Whatever the course of action chosen by the Nigerian government or its Western allies, the return of the girls would only mean “winning the battle” instead of the war over Nigeria’s future. The safe return of the girls would not mean the elimination of Boko Haram—rather, this incident seems to have bolstered the group’s confidence by bringing the world’s attention to their relatively small, regional-level organization. For a lasting and effective solution to be conceived, Nigerian lawmakers, politicians and citizens will first have to deal with the poverty, rampant corruption, weak infrastructures and institutions, and lack of educational opportunities that plague the country. Unfortunately, these are objectives that Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is either unwilling or unable to prioritize. Until these structural issues are addressed, Boko Haram will continue to strengthen its ability to recruit from an under-educated population long disillusioned with the lack of proper governance in their country. Nigeria must continue its journey towards democratization—and it must do it alone. The United States, and everyone around the world concerned about the 284 girls, should offer the Nigerian people their concern and support without succumbing to the temptation to intervene. After all, as Doug Bandow wrote in Forbes earlier this week: “only Nigerians can save Nigeria.”

Image by Stephen D. Melkisethian