Obama faces big decision on Keystone XL as damning evidence mounts


President Obama sure has a lot on his plate as he gets ready to take the oath for his second term over the weekend — formally on Sunday and in front of a large gathering on Monday. Much of the focus lately has been on guns and reducing the federal debt, but his upcoming environmental choices loom as especially important — and difficult. Two of them — on fracking regulations and offshore drilling, especially in the Arctic — have received a lot of attention here, but the first big decision will likely be whether to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s a lot of good reason to oppose the project — most notably the fear of another leak like major pipeline spills that have contaminated major waterways in Wyoming and Michigan. And now there’s growing concern that the extraction process for shale oil will also release a considerable amount of greenhouse gases into the environment, thus increasing the problem of global warming. Two new reports this week offered fresh evidence that allowing the Keystone XL project to go forward will cause environmental harm:

One report, from the anti-petroleum group Oil Change International, finds that existing studies of emissions from mining, transporting and refining the oil from oil sands formations in Alberta fails to account for the impact of petroleum coke, or petcoke. The study states that because petcoke is considered a refinery byproduct, its emissions are not included in calculation of the climate impact of exploiting Canadian oil sands.

The study says that the petcoke produced from oil moving through the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline would be equivalent to the coal burned at five conventional power plants.

The second study, from the Canadian environmental research group Pembina, says that construction of the pipeline would bring rapid expansion of tar sands mining and greatly increase overall greenhouse gas emissions.

“Filling the Keystone XL pipeline with oils and crude will create significant greenhouse gases regardless of whether other transport options move forward,” said Nathan Lemphers, a researcher at Pembina. “Because Canada does not have a credible plan for responsibly developing the oil sands, including reducing emissions so Canada can meet its climate commitments, the pipeline should not go ahead.”

This is not welcome news — not after we’ve all heard the reports that 2012 was yet again the hottest year recorded since modern record keeping began, with increasing evidence that the oceans are rising faster than once forecast — which would be devastating in my home base along the Gulf Coast, where wetlands are already under assault.

So you would think that nixing the ill-advised Keystone project would be a slam dunk for President Obama as he begins his second term. But while he did send the project back for additional review last year — when he was rallying his liberal base for the 2012 election — he’s given every indication that he will eventually sign off on the plan. Environmentalists are rallying to change his mind.

A group of prominent climate scientists say President Obama’s legacy is on the line as he mulls whether to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

“We hope, as scientists, that you will demonstrate the seriousness of your climate convictions by refusing to permit Keystone XL; to do otherwise would be to undermine your legacy,” the 18 scientists wrote in a public letter to Obama released Tuesday.

 Well-known climate scientists on the list include Michael Mann of Penn State and James Hansen of Columbia University. They add in their letter:

“You take office for the second time at a critical moment. As you may know, the U.S. has just recorded the hottest year in its history, beating the old mark by a full degree; the same year that saw the deep Midwest drought, and the fury of Hurricane Sandy, also witnessed the rapid and unprecedented melt of the Arctic ice pack,” they write.

The State Department is weighing whether to grant TransCanada a permit for the project, but Obama has indicated that he will ultimately be the decider on Keystone.

I’m not so sure the president won’t do the right thing here. For one thing, since his re-election he’s shown a willingness to act in the face of a crisis — both on environmental issues like Arctic drilling, now under an urgent review because of the Kulluk grounding last month, and on other matters such as gun violence, in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

And our warming planet is clearly another crisis, not just for the White House but for all of us. The next four years present a fantastic opportunity to move America away from its addiction to fossil fuels and toward a cleaner future with alternative energy. And rejecting the Keystone Pipeline would be a great way to kick that off.

To read more from the New York Times about the new dire reports on oil sands, go to: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/2-reports-on-oil-sands-paint-a-dire-picture/

Learn more about climate scientists lobbying Obama to turn down the Keystone pipeline at: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/277149-scientists-backing-keystone-pipeline-would-undermine-obamas-climate-legacy#ixzz2IHwG3Klj

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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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