This was not a scene that you pictured when Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008: Tens of thousands of environmentalists marching on Obama’s White House, demanding action but worried that a progressive-minded president won’t do the right thing. Ironically, the rallies this Presidents Day weekend against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline have been the largest U.S. environmental protests in a generation, larger than anything that took place while the oil men George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were running the country.
What’s going on here?
First of all, it’s important to understand that when it comes to fighting global warming and curbing the emissions of greenhouse gases, President Obama certainly talks the talks. His words on climate change in last week’s State of the Union address were the strongest we’ve seen out of the White House in some time. The president said:
But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods — all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that President Obama did not say one word about the biggest and most vexing environmental issue sitting on his desk: the proposed construction of a Keystone XL pipeline to facilitate the harvesting of oil from the Canadian tar sands and its transportation to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
So far, Mr. Obama has been able to balance his promises to promote both energy independence and environmental protection, by allowing more oil and gas drilling on public lands and offshore while also pushing auto companies to make their vehicles more efficient. But the Keystone decision, which is technically a State Department prerogative but will be decided by the president himself, defies easy compromise.
“This is a tricky political challenge for the president,” said Michael A. Levi, an energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The reality is everyone has defined the stakes on Keystone in such absolute terms that it is borderline impossible to see a compromise that will satisfy all the players.”
The proposed northern extension of the nearly 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline would connect Canada’s oil sands to refineries around Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, replacing Venezuelan heavy crude with similar Canadian grades.
There’s a lot not to like about the Keystone XL pipeline. The initial route passed over sensitive sources of drinking water for the American Midwest and thus created the risk of a catastrophe in the event of a spill. There’s been talk of moving the proposed pipeline path, but frankly that’s still not enough. The entire project should be scrapped. Here’s a good explainer from Scientific American of why oil from Canada’s tar sands are so damaging to the earth’s climate:
Alberta’s oil sands represent a significant tonnage of carbon. With today’s technology there are roughly 170 billion barrels of oil to be recovered in the tar sands, and an additional 1.63 trillion barrels worth underground if every last bit of bitumen could be separated from sand. “The amount of CO2 locked up in Alberta tar sands is enormous,” notes mechanical engineer John Abraham of the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, another signer of the Keystone protest letter from scientists. “If we burn all the tar sand oil, the temperature rise, just from burning that tar sand, will be half of what we’ve already seen”—an estimated additional nearly 0.4 degree C from Alberta alone.
As it stands, the oil sands industry has greenhouse gas emissions greater than New Zealand and Kenya—combined. If all the bitumen in those sands could be burned, another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere and, even if just the oil sands recoverable with today’s technology get burned, 22 billion metric tons of carbon would reach the sky. And reserves usually expand over time as technology develops, otherwise the world would have run out of recoverable oil long ago.
The article notes that the tar sands oil actually contributes about 14 percent more to greenhouse gas pollution than the typical oil that we now consume in the United States. This is absolutely the wrong direction. The world is only going to see more of the devastating storms like Sandy, withering droughts or record floods — unless we turn things around, quickly.
President Obama’s compelling lines from his State of the Union speech are nothing more than empty words without dramatic action on his part. There’s a reason why Al Gore called his documentary on climate change “The Inconvenient Truth,” — because it involves making very difficult choices. As the coverage notes, a decision by Obama and the State Department to halt the Keystone XL project will open up the president and his allies to attacks that they are killing jobs, as well as risking a diplomatic showdown with Canada, a loyal U.S. ally.
But the easiest choice is rarely the best choice. The reason that environmentalists marched on this White House, and not the previous Bush administration, is because activists believe this president has his heart in the right place and can be pushed to do what is right. I certainly hope that’s true.
For a complete transcript of President Obama’s State of the Union address, please read: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/remarks-president-state-union-address
For coverage of the politics of the Keystone XL debate from the New York Times, please read: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/business/energy-environment/obamas-keystone-pipeline-decision-risks-new-problems-either-way.html
To read the Scientific American piece about tar sands oil and climate change, check out: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=tar-sands-and-keystone-xl-pipeline-impact-on-global-warming
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