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Eyes on the Prize?

Eyes on the Prize?
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By Bryan Parras
Art by Austin Smith

Parras Art 

“Oh, are we still fighting that?”

I remember a stranger saying this after answering a question about what I was doing in D.C. I was waiting to speak at yet another protest rally against the proposed pipeline.  That was over one year ago. People were already bored with the same tired rhetoric spouted by pipeline supporters and critics alike.  People were already touting this Congress as the worst on record for getting little done, as both sides continued screaming past each other…but don’t be fooled.

Have you heard of the lesser-known pipelines in the works? Flanagan South, Seaway Twin, Alberta Clipper, Line 9, Energy East?  Have you heard of the other means by which oil and gas companies want to transport tar sands to the Gulf Coast?

Congress, the White House, and all of your elected officials have actually been quite busy. If you keep your eye on the pipeline, you will be distracted and fall prey to a well-orchestrated choreography known as Sleight of Hand.  This process, best demonstrated by Penn & Teller, is a set of techniques employed by a magician to manipulate objects and spectator’s perception of reality.



Penn & Teller lay out eight principles that can be used in different order to fool the spectator and achieve the desired goal.  These techniques are not exclusive to simple card tricks and are often exhibited in the political sphere.  This is the case with the infamous saga of proposed tar sands conduits snaking across Indian Territory, sensitive aquifers, and down to the Dirty South.  So how do large scale national political battles employ these techniques?  Pay attention.

The first technique is holding an object in an apparently empty hand.  P&T call this PALM. In the political sphere, we have been told time and time again that the 113th Congress is the absolute worse with very little legislation to show for it.  We have been convinced that nothing can get through Congress and signed by the President, but they have actually been quite busy .



“That’s the verdict from two-thirds of Americans about the track record of the 113th Congress, according to a new national poll. And a CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday also indicates that nearly three-quarters of the public say that this has been a “do-nothing” Congress.

Democrats and Republicans alike say the 113th Congress is shaping up to be the worst ever. Veteran lawmakers are used to partisanship and stalemate, but they say Capitol Hill has sunk to a new dysfunctional low.” (THE HILL, 3-10-14)

The second technique involves exchanging one object for another, or SWITCH.  In regards to the proposed pipeline, the President very skillfully side-stepped the final decision for part of the pipeline, and fast tracked the southern portion which stretches from Cushing, OK to the Gulf Coast — rendering the issue moot for communities along that portion and where the tar sands will eventually be refined and exported.



“President Obama will issue a memo Thursday telling federal agencies to expedite permitting for an Oklahoma-to-Texas oil pipeline that makes up the southern portion of the Keystone XL project, the White House said. He’ll also issue a broader executive order demanding faster permitting and review decisions for energy- and transportation-related infrastructure.” (THE HILL, 3-21-12)


The third technique employed by the “Do-Nothing” congress and “hand-tied” President is to DITCH, or dispose of an unneeded object.  As recently as September 4th, other methods of transporting tar sands have been approved, even as the majority of the “pipeline-fighters” have remained faithful to ONE pipeline.  In the meantime, tar sands have made their way to the U.S.



The fourth principle involves loading the “secret” object (tar sands) to where it is needed, or LOAD.  In this case, to refineries in Texas.  These guys sure are crafty for not getting anything done.



“A U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled that Enbridge’s 600-mile-long Flanagan South Pipeline, a Keystone XL “clone,” is legally cleared to proceed opening for business in October. Approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via a controversial regulatory mechanism called Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12), Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson, an Obama-appointed judge, ruled NWP 12 was not a federal government “action.” Thus, Brown posited that Enbridge did not need to use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulatory process and NWP 12 was up to snuff.” (DESMOGBLOG, 8-19-14)


The fifth principle of sleight of hand gives the spectator the impression that something has happened when in fact, it has not! This is called SIMULATION.  These techniques can be used in varying order and this is one that comes back time and time again.  For our purposes, well take a look at the non-profit sector and how they can also use these techniques to their benefit as well.  Let’s not mention how many times we have won the same fight over and over again.  I thought there was finality to a win?



“After an epic campaign, the incredible coalition fighting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has emerged victorious. The pipeline – the fuse to ‘the largest carbon bomb on the planet’ – has been delayed and effectively killed.” ― 350.org 2024 Annual Report

It is not like NGOs within the non-profit industrial complex have no clue regarding the rail industry quietly burgeoning behind the KXL campaign. Quite the contrary. In the State Department’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) it is stated that:

“Even in a situation where there was a total freeze in pipeline capacity for 20 years, it appears that there is sufficient capacity on existing rail tracks to accommodate shipping … through at least 2024…. [S]tatistics from the Department of Transportation … conservatively estimated that the existing cross-border rail lines from Canada to the U.S. could accommodate crude oil train shipments of over 1,000,000 bpd (barrels per day).”

Note the language used within this paragraph implies rail is an “option,” rather than a reality already in full force.

Finally, I’ll leave you with one last technique to which most of the country continues to fall prey — MISDIRECTION — a process by which attention is diverted from a secret move. As many non-profits, individuals, and environmental advocates continue to focus on ONE PIPELINE, tar sand mines continue to expand, boreal forests continue to disappear, and communities living in areas where the dirty fuel is being extracted or refined continue to suffer. It’s time to get serious and attack the tar sands at the source; let’s help those local communities with minimal resources and capacity to do the heavy lifting.