Actually, it wouldn’t be crazy at all for Obama to kill the Keystone XL


The race against time to stop the Keystone XL pipeline’s march across the United States — and the dirty pollution and climate change that will inevitably come with it — is moving forward on two tracks. In the White House, President Obama and his team are sending out the white smoke signals that the pipeline is likely going forward — that while the administration talks a good game (sometimes) on global warming, the eagerness to boost North American energy production by any means necessary, and stay in Canada’s good graces, remains paramount.

In other words, despite the alarming and growing evidence that climate change is more severe than expected, and may be irreversible if we don’t act quickly, Obama is sending a signal to the nation that global warming isn’t as serious as maybe saving a few extra cents at the pump.

Even some of the more traditional wiser heads of Washington are starting to wonder if this makes sense. I was a little surprised to see Thomas Friedman of the New York Times write so forcefully on the issue this weekend:

I HOPE the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?) But I don’t think he will. So I hope that Bill McKibben and his coalition go crazy. I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change. We don’t get such an opportunity often — namely, a second-term Democratic president who is under heavy pressure to approve a pipeline to create some jobs but who also has a green base that he can’t ignore. So cue up the protests, and pay no attention to people counseling rational and mature behavior. We need the president to be able to say to the G.O.P. oil lobby, “I’m going to approve this, but it will kill me with my base. Sasha and Malia won’t even be talking to me, so I’ve got to get something really big in return.”

Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.  

What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.

The Times editorial board also weighed in this week with a strong statement:

The State Department will release a fuller review in early summer, and at some point after that the White House will decide. That decision will say a lot about whether Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, are willing to exert global leadership on the climate change issue. Speaking of global warming in his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama pledged that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” Mr. Kerry has since spoken of the need to safeguard for coming generations a world that is not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts and other destructive forces created by a changing climate.

In itself, the Keystone pipeline will not push the world into a climate apocalypse. But it will continue to fuel our appetite for oil and add to the carbon load in the atmosphere. There is no need to accept it.

Strong statements — I don’t have a great deal to add. I will note that a great many environmental activists around the country worked hard to elect President Obama and then re-elect him last fall, because of the hopes that he would be a different kind of president when it came to issues like climate change — not a warmed-over, Lite Beer version of Republicanism. The exploitation of Canada’s tar sands and of America’s natural gas reserves through fracking has made it easier and tempting for Obama to ignore some of his promises, not just on climate change but on making America a world leader in alternative energy such as wind or solar.

Friedman writes in his piece that if Obama does approve the pipeline — as many expect (and fear) — he will need to make it up to his “green” base in other ways. Why wait? He can pay back his eco-friendly supporters right now by killing this bad Keystone XL idea.

Read Thomas Friedman’s column: “No to Keystone. Yes to Crazy”:

The New York Times editorial opposing the Keystone pipeline is at:

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