Keystone XL setback isn’t end of the fight

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I’m not going to write a long post on this because it was just two days ago that pointed out some of the reasons why the massive Keystone XL pipeline — which would take heavy tar sands oil from Canada and ship it across environmentally sensitive American prairie on its way to the Gulf Coast and then to foreign markets — is such a bad idea. The exploitation of the tar sands oil is horrible for our efforts to reverse climate change, and given our lousy recent track record with pipeline safety, there’s also the potential for a devastating spill.

On Tuesday, it was a bad omen when President Obama — who will make the ultimate decision on whether the pipeline is built — didn’t mention Keystone XL in his State of the Union address. Today, in a news dump at 3 p.m. on the Friday before the Super Bowl that was clearly meant to get as little attention as possible, the State Department made it much more likely that the pipeline will happen:

The long-awaited environmental impact statement on the project concludes that approval or denial of the pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, is unlikely to prompt oil companies to change the rate of their extraction of carbon-heavy tar sands oil, a State Department official said. Either way, the tar sands oil, which produces significantly more planet-warming carbon pollution than standard methods of drilling, is coming out of the ground, the report says.

In his second term, Mr. Obama has sought to make his fight against climate change a cornerstone of his legacy. In a major speech on the environment last summer, Mr. Obama said that he would approve the pipeline only if it would not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of carbon pollution. He said the pipeline’s net effects on the climate would be “absolutely critical” to his decision.

The conclusions of the report appear to indicate that the project has passed Mr. Obama’s climate criteria, an outcome expected to outrage environmentalists, who have rallied, protested, marched and been arrested in demonstrations around the country against the pipeline.

Ironically, the report still confirmed some of the main complaints that environmentalists have against the project. For one thing, it acknowledges that burning this dirty tar sands oil does more harm to the environment than conventional crude. At the same time, it concedes something that has become increasingly clear in recent weeks and months, which is that Big Oil is determined to get this tar sands oil to market any way that it can. The main method for working around the pipeline shortage is by shipping oil by rail — often in outdated and dangerous tanker cars, over poorly maintained tracks, leading to numerous accidents, including the wreck in Quebec last summer that killed 47 people.

Activists should continue to lobby President Obama to kill the project, and continue to fight it by any means necessary…and they will. But we also need to move beyond the point of essentially arguing whether we prefer the risk of a pipeline spill or an oil-train explosion. The only real solution is to pursue even more stringent laws and regulations against the burning of fossil fuels, so that we can leave this dirty Canadian fuel in the ground, where it belongs. The president said in his speech on Tuesday that  “the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact” — which would make final approval for Keystone XL look hypocritical and cynical. But even so, it’s just one battle in a much bigger war against fossil-fuel pollution.

For more about the State Department report on Keystone XL, please read: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/01/us/politics/report-may-ease-way-to-approval-of-keystone-pipeline.html?hp

Read an analysis of the president’s State of the Union speech on the environment at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/attytood/All-of-the-above-The-planet-is-not-a-multiple-choice-test.html#BPyrVIffFv6LJj73.99

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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