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Keystone XL: An X-Ray into Obama’s Presidency

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on -- and it’s now well over two years old -- it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.

The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south.  The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.

In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline -- on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down -- would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.

These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).

Related article: Two Energy Ideas: Refiners and the Back of the Crude Curve

But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline.  It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It's a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”

Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide -- the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.

On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.

His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane -- another dangerous greenhouse gas -- than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment.  At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.

The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often -- with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform -- he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.

Related article: Fossil Fuel Demand is too High to be Controlled

There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.

Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brotherset al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the U.S. via destinations from Michigan to Maine.  These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well -- indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.

At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.

If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 -- the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.


But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of a new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

By. Bill McKibben

Source: Tom Dispatch

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  • Ross Ephgrave on October 29 2013 said:
    I argue your point sir. Most of the spills are coming from other sources than the supposed "dirty" tar sands oil coming from Canada. And these sources are within the US. And as I've argued before, the US is using up or risking contaminating not only their drinking water but Canada's to frack. The world's need for oil will not diminish much over the next 15 years and Canada's tar sands are not going away anytime soon. The US should be more concerned about its rate of coal consumption and the pollution footprint created by their exhorbitant use of power plants and automobiles. I grew up in Southern Ontario, and we could barely breathe in the summer because of the smog that the southern winds bring from the northern US States. Maybe you should talk more about that, or the air quality in Los Angeles?
  • Teddy Roosevelt Republican on October 29 2013 said:
    The Line in the Tar Sand

    Let’s stipulate the facts.

    Tar sand oil is a dirty business. Mining the product takes enormous amounts of energy and water, and lays waste to huge swaths of boreal forests. The mining and burning of the product leaves behind one of the heavier carbon footprints one can imagine. When the tar sand story ends—through depletion or economic obsolescence—the citizens of Alberta will be left with one ugly mess.

    But, that is their choice. There is absolutely nothing the United States can do to prevent or dissuade Canadians from doing what they will with their own natural resources. We aren’t about to trade North Dakota or Alaska to Canada in exchange for a promise not to dig up their tar sands.

    Under the theory of never wasting an opportunity to fund raise around a controversy, many environmentalists and green groups have drawn a line in the tar sand. Tar sands are going to be mined, and the product is going to be shipped. The pragmatic, common sense question we need to ask is how to minimize its environmental impact.

    Christian Science Monitor reports that the cost of transporting one barrel of oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast by pipeline is about $7 and by rail $15.50 to $31. Transport by OTR trucks is exponentially more expensive. The carbon footprint of pipeline transportation is likewise much less than other options.

    We’ve recently witnessed derailments of rail tanker cars filled with tar sands oil, including at Gainford, Alberta and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which wreaked havoc in those places. I live thirty minutes from where the Enbridge pipeline poured millions of gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River (I toured the damaged area with Governor Rick Snyder, who called for review of pipeline safety in our state.) That pipeline is 60 years old. New pipelines, built to new standards, offer a much higher degree of confidence in leak prevention, detection, and control.

    No other country in the world surpasses the U.S. in stringent safety and environmental regulations. I’d rather we handle and process the raw material than ship it over the Canadian Rockies, pump it on to tanker ships, and set it sailing across the Pacific crests. Keeping it in North America is safer, cleaner, and less carbon intensive.

    The facts are plain. Pipelines are more efficient in economic and environmental terms, and can be safer than any other transport method.

    There are few people in America, including me, who wouldn’t, if they could, wave a magic wand and convert the entire world to clean energy immediately, especially if workers, investors, and communities involved in fossil fuels could be made whole in economic terms. But, we don’t have a magic wand.

    Environmental activists engaged in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline are preaching to their choir, and demonizing common sense leaders (mainly Republicans). Rather than drawing an arbitrary line in the tar sand, environmental funders and activists would be much further ahead by working to make it safe for Republicans to discuss a national clean energy strategy—one that insures the United States will be the innovator and exporter of clean, reliable, cheap energy technology to the world for many generations to come. The quicker cleaner and less expensive energy gets to market, the quicker tar sand development becomes economically obsolete.

    Until then, preventing construction of the Keystone project will do more to harm the environment, and will insure the continued polarization of bigger policy debates.
  • Michael on October 29 2013 said:
    Hopefully this is intended as polemic, since it's one of the most one sided, rhetoric choked pieces I've read on the subject.

    Teddy Roosevelt Republican provides a useful rebuttal of your highly opinionated analysis.

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