What Does Terrorism Have to Do With the Keystone Pipeline?

An explosion is seen as soldiers keep low in the foreground during a joint Pakistan-China anti-terrorist drill as they wrap up their two-week military exercise in Jhelum on November 24, 2011. PLA soldiers and Pakistani commandos from Special Service Group (SSG) participated in the exercise which was a display of the mutual commitment and resolve to fight terrorism, besides bolstering the ties between the two countries. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
June 4, 2014, 8:30 a.m.

The Key­stone XL pipeline is highly vul­ner­able to a ter­ror­ist at­tack.

At least that’s what op­pon­ents of the pro­ject want you to be­lieve. The pro­posed oil-sands pipeline has yet to be built, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to sign off on the pro­ject be­fore it can go for­ward. But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are launch­ing a cam­paign to clas­si­fy it as a na­tion­al se­cur­ity threat. The claim opens up a new front in the pub­lic-re­la­tions arms race over the pipeline — and it’s heavy on the hype.

Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate — an or­gan­iz­a­tion backed by bil­lion­aire en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ist Tom Stey­er — com­mis­sioned a re­port de­tail­ing the po­ten­tial for a ter­ror­ist at­tack on Key­stone XL. The as­sess­ment is au­thored by Dave Cooper, a seni­or op­er­at­ive from the U.S. spe­cial forces team that took down Osama Bin Laden.

The re­port — re­leased Wed­nes­day — does everything it can to gin up anxi­ety that an at­tack could oc­cur, but stops short of quan­ti­fy­ing the ac­tu­al risk.

It cites “an up­tick in ter­ror­ist at­tacks against en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture around the world” to em­phas­ize the pipeline’s vul­ner­ab­il­ity. Cooper out­lines a num­ber of scen­ari­os to il­lus­trate how the pipeline’s north­ern ex­ten­sion might fall vic­tim to sab­ot­age. And he ar­gues that Key­stone’s na­tion­al ex­pos­ure could in­crease its chance of be­com­ing a tar­get. 

“Right now, know­ing the prob­lems that ex­ist, I wouldn’t put the pipe in the ground,” Cooper told re­port­ers at a brief­ing Wed­nes­day in Ar­ling­ton, Va.

In an ef­fort to raise the stakes sur­round­ing the pipeline, however, the re­port leaves out cru­cial con­text.

Here’s what it doesn’t say: While ter­ror­ist at­tacks on en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture may be on the rise around the world, ter­ror­ist strikes on U.S. soil have de­clined dra­mat­ic­ally in re­cent dec­ades. At­tacks fell from 468 in 1970 to just 13 in 2012, the latest year that data was avail­able through the Na­tion­al Con­sor­ti­um for the Study of Ter­ror­ism and Re­sponses to Ter­ror­ism at the Uni­versity of Mary­land.

Dur­ing this time, the most likely tar­gets of a ter­ror­ist at­tack in the U.S. were busi­nesses, fol­lowed by private cit­izens and prop­erty. At­tacks ten­ded to take place in urb­an areas, and non-fatal events vastly out­numbered deadly strikes.

Cooper ac­know­ledged that ter­ror­ist at­tacks on do­mest­ic pipelines have not his­tor­ic­ally been a ma­jor is­sue in the United States. But he em­phas­ized that the U.S. should take a pro­act­ive ap­proach to safe­guard­ing na­tion­al se­cur­ity, rather than wait­ing un­til a prob­lem oc­curs to take ac­tion. He also cited an as­sess­ment is­sued by the Trans­port­a­tion Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion high­light­ing the po­ten­tial vul­ner­ab­il­ity of do­mest­ic pipelines. 

Yet while Key­stone XL could fall vic­tim to a ter­ror­ist at­tack, the odds of that hap­pen­ing in the near fu­ture are low re­l­at­ive to po­ten­tial tar­gets and past years’ activ­ity.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists are all but cer­tain, however, to steer clear of trends that might drain any of the ur­gency from their ar­gu­ment.

A spokes­per­son for Nex­t­Gen said that a copy of the threat as­sess­ment was hand-de­livered to a high-level State De­part­ment of­fi­cial cur­rently in­volved in the na­tion­al-in­terest de­term­in­a­tion of the pipeline on Monday. Law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill, in­clud­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ors Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia and Mar­tin Hein­rich of New Mex­ico, were also briefed by the or­gan­iz­a­tion about the re­port earli­er in the week.

It’s not the first time the Key­stone de­bate has been wrapped up in rhet­or­ic — and it likely won’t be the last. Former Re­pub­lic­an House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich called for the pipeline’s ap­prov­al in light of the crisis in Syr­ia last fall, des­pite the fact that events abroad were not poised to sig­ni­fic­antly im­pact en­ergy se­cur­ity.

And as the quest to win the pub­lic-opin­ion battle over the pipeline drags on, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and in­dustry have had to get more cre­at­ive. 

This story has been up­dated.

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