Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Imagination vs. Inevitability
distributed 4/12/13 - ©2013

"Business as usual" is a benign sounding little phrase, and it strikes fear into my heart.

Business as usual (or BAU) is a term often used in studies about climate change. It indicates the societal path which does not involve any big shifts in technology, public policy or personal behavior. BAU is the scenario that, according to all of the models, leads us into rapidly and directly into climate disaster.

Business as usual is embodied in the "all of the above" energy policies that I critiqued last week -- policies that will never be able to take us into a sustainable, no-or-low carbon future.

Breaking out of BAU demands imagination -- vivid and wildly creative imagination. Imagination allows us to believe that "another world is possible." (A month ago, I wrote in general terms about imagination as a part of relevant and transformative worship.)

Here in the US, an urgent and important policy decision shows how deep our imaginative work needs to go. It is not enough to picture wind farms and solar panel arrays that allow a new energy future. We also have to imagine that business as usual can be stopped.

This week's case study, and this week's urgent action alert, have to do with the Keystone XL pipeline -- which could be the poster child for business as usual.

+     +     +     +     +

I'm going to assume that you're generally familiar with the Keystone pipeline and the controversy about tar sands. (For background, see "The Crisis of Canadian Gunk".)

It is up to President Obama to make the call about approving construction of the pipeline across the Canadian-US border. As part of the process on that decision, the US State Department has prepared a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a 3,000 page document evaluating all kinds of projected impacts from the construction and operation of the pipeline.

There is (at least!) one part of the EIS that screams out "business as usual" assumptions. The study presumes that the tar sands will be developed, somehow, and evaluates the impacts of the pipeline in relation to other ways that the tar sands gunk (my term) might be shipped. An explicit statement is found in section of the draft EIS:

As stated in Section 1.4, Market Analysis, approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the U.S. Limitations on pipeline transport would force more crude oil to be transported via other modes of transportation, such as rail, which would probably (but not certainly) be more expensive.

The State Department's impact statement acknowledges that tar sands have a higher carbon content, and a greater climate impact, than most other forms of oil. Their numbers (which are lower than many others that I have read) say that synthetic crude from tar sands produce 17 percent more greenhouse gases than natural crude oil already refined in the US.

Pipeline opponents -- most visibly Dr. James Hansen and the movement -- speak of the Canadian tar sands as "a climate bomb", both because of the enormous volume of the Canadian deposits, and the high carbon impacts in producing and burning the bitumen fuel.

The State Department EIS is able to claim that the proposed pipeline will "not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects" only because it assumes that the tar sands will be excavated, refined and burned somehow. With that business as usual presumption, they can compare the impacts of the Keystone pipeline against other ways of shipping the same oil. They don't give serious consideration to a "leave it in the ground" option.

The BAU assertion that releasing the carbon bomb will not have "significant adverse environmental effects" may make sense inside the dominant economic and political models, but it is ludicrous when looking at the levels of atmospheric CO2 if that stuff is burned. It could raise carbon dioxide levels to 600 parts per million.

Imagination breaks out of the business as usual mindset. Imagination allows us to believe that nothing is inevitable. Imagination can grasp the possibility of the tar sands staying in the ground.

That sort of imagination is not unrealistic. It is plausible to believe that the tar sands can be bottled up in Canada, without big new routes to export the gunk to the rest of the world.

Less than two years ago, all the people in the know "knew" that the Keystone XL pipeline was a slam-dunk, and that the permits would be issued with no problems. After 18 months of well-organized, passionate and widespread public protests, the pipeline permit is in trouble. It has become one of the most visible and hard-fought environmental issues in the US.

The BAU line has been that, if Keystone isn't built, the Canadians will just pipe it to British Columbia. In other words, extracting the tar stands is considered inevitable. But tar sands pipelines are in trouble in Canada, too. The State Department wrote (, "Various pipeline projects have been proposed to transport crude oil from Alberta to the Canadian west coast, although they currently face significant opposition in the regulatory process."

The indigenous people of Canada are putting up a heroic fight against tar sands pipelines across their lands on the western route. Other protests are causing difficulties with proposed pipelines to Canada's Atlantic coast. If the US does not allow Keystone, and those other pipelines are not built, then business as usual won't happen. The tar sands will not be as easily, profitably and massively mined. Without a pipeline infrastructure, there will be far less incentive to keep extracting the tar sands for decades to come.

The State Department could not imagine anything except business as usual. In their analysis, it is inevitable that the stuff will be mined, refined and burned -- so a pipe through the US has no "significant" impact. Because of that assumption, the State Department environmental impact statement is fatally flawed.

It is possible to imagine that no big new pipelines will be built from the Alberta tar sands. It is possible to imagine that much of the carbon bomb will stay in the ground. And that is precisely the kind of imagination -- both wild and realistic -- that we need if we are going to get to a sustainable future.

+     +     +     +     +

The public may comment on the State Department's draft environmental impact statement, but the comment period ends on Monday, April 22 -- ironically, Earth Day.

I invite you -- I urge you -- to join with me in submitting a statement rejecting the "business as usual" assumptions of the State Department's EIS. Demand that a larger imagination be brought to the range of alternatives that are considered.

You can write your own comments, and email them to (see the State Department website for details).

More conveniently, several groups have provided sample statements that can be modified, including Interfaith Power & Light,, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. (NOTE to members of the UCC: record this in your Mission 4/1 Earth tally!)

There will be one public hearing on the EIS, to be held in Grand Island, Nebraska next Thursday, April 18. Pipeline opponents are gathering crowds of citizens in Grand Island to witness for a different and sustainable option. If you are in the central part of the US, make the trip to Grand Island and show your views in person. I know of chartered busses that are going from Denver, and from St. Louis/Kansas City.

Business as usual is not acceptable. We can -- we must -- imagine and embody a different way of living. Demanding a revised analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline is one way to bring that imagination to life.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form