What do they mean by the Keystone 'jobs' bill?

Ben Jackson

In the Republican Response to the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Joni Ernst, a newly elected senator from Iowa, referred to legislation that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline as the ‘Keystone jobs bill’.

It’s the latest in a long line of Republican rebrandings. They called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ‘Obamacare’ (intended pejoratively, the name has since been adopted by supporters and endorsed by the president). Inheritance tax was restyled as a ‘death tax’ (the exemption at the federal level currently stands at $5,430,000; a study in 2011 estimated that only 3270 people who died that year would pay it). Voter ID laws, which discriminate against the poor because they are less likely to have the necessary ID, are sold as a way of eliminating ‘voter fraud’ at the polls. (Democrats do it too: ‘marriage equality’ acts meet less resistance than explicit talk of same-sex marriage.)

But the ‘Keystone jobs bill’ marks a new low. It doesn’t offer a different ideological lens on a subject; it changes the subject entirely. The Keystone XL pipeline would run 1179 miles from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska, where it would join up with existing Keystone pipelines and funnel down to Gulf Coast refineries. It could transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day. Building it would employ thousands, but according to a State Department report there would be only 35 permanent maintenance and inspection jobs once it was completed.

The debate has been about whether the environmental costs of the project, especially the greenhouse gases that would be emitted, are worth the economic and energy-related benefits. Tar sands oil produces much higher emissions than conventional oil, in part because fossil fuels have to be burned in large volumes to even access it. There are an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of oil in the Alberta tar sands, roughly the same as the world's proven reserves of conventional oil. Only a fraction of the deposits are accessible, and global warming projections are never certain, but according to John Abraham, a mechanical engineer at Purdue University, ‘if we burn all the tar sand oil, the temperature rise... will be half of what we've already seen.’

On the other hand, America needs a lot of energy and uses a lot of oil. Trading with Canada rather than Iraq and Saudi Arabia increases America’s energy security, and anything that reduces American interest in the Middle East is probably a Good Thing. And aren’t we committed to the environmental costs anyway? If America doesn’t take advantage of the tar sands, someone else will. But there’s also a symbolic question: you can’t be thinking seriously about the consequences of climate change if you lock yourself into longterm projects that produce vast amounts of greenhouse gases. Still, polls have consistently shown that most Americans are in favour (and Canada stands to lose $632 billion in ‘foregone growth’ if Keystone XL doesn’t go ahead).

With the new Republican majority, Keystone XL is almost certain to be passed by Congress. The ‘jobs bill’ innovation was designed by Ernst and her speechwriters to put pressure on Obama, who has consistently threatened to veto the legislation. There may be no ideologically neutral way of describing a piece of policy or legislation, but ‘jobs bill’ could be applied to almost anything. To describe Keystone XL legislation in such terms is not only vacuous but politically bankrupt; it shouldn’t be too much to ask of politicians that they discuss the matter at hand.


  • 25 January 2015 at 4:41pm
    Bob Beck says:
    There's certainly no ideologically neutral way to refer to the source of the "oil" -- in truth, diluted bitumen or "dil-bit" -- that will flow through this pipeline, sooner or later. Into the 1980s, supporters and proponents had no objection to the term "tar sands," and used it routinely. As the period of research, pilot projects and simple ballyhoo gradually gave way to actual production, boosters began substituting "oil sands," which helped to cloak the filthy reality in euphemism.

    As it happened, this also provided a convenient marker for attitudes toward development of the oil source. Anyone who refers to "oil sands" either supports said development, or doesn't want to be identified with certain critics who have never dropped "tar sands". Even the leader of the Green Party of Canada, MP Elizabeth May, now refers to the "oil sands."

    Being both a non-supporter, and a pedant, I prefer "bitumen sands." But that will never catch on.