The weekend saw another milestone in the debate over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would ship tar sand oil from fields in Alberta in Canada to the Gulf Coast of the United States. Keystone has become a touchstone issue for climate politics in the United States — and early Saturday morning its final environmental report was released.
The Pipeline first hit the airwaves in 2012 as climate activists made it a key test of Barack Obama’s resolve to tackle climate change in the lead up to the Presidential election. Activists have been mobilised by the carbon intensity of the Alberta Tar Sands, with NASA scientist Jim Hansen stating that if they were to be opened up it would be "essentially game over" for any hope of achieving a stable climate.
When it was first proposed, Obama seemed almost certain to approve the project (the US Government needs to provide approval as the project crosses international borders), citing the benefits to the economy of doing so. But after a sustained campaign, including mass civil disobedience outside the White House, in late 2011 Obama delayed any decision on the approval, citing the need for more information on its environmental impacts.
In the middle of last year he officially made climate change a key factor in his decision, stating that he wouldn’t approve the pipeline if it was shown to "significantly exacerbate" the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. On Friday US time, or early Saturday morning Australia time, a final report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline, including its impacts on climate change, was handed down.
The report argued that the pipeline would not "significantly exacerbate" the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. The department has been quite creative in coming to this proposition. The report does acknowledge that the pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast — oil that would be burnt and significantly add to greenhouse gas emissions.
But it argues the pipeline itself will not add to carbon pollution because if it isn’t built this oil would be shipped out by rail anyway. As the report stated:
"While short-term physical transportation constraints introduce uncertainty to industry outlooks over the next decade, new data and analysis … indicate that rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed."
In other words, the US may as well allow the pipeline to go ahead, because even if it doesn’t someone else will trash the planet anyway. Of course, this creativity is heavily connected to the proponents of this project. The State Department process has been shrouded in controversy, with accusations of colluding between government officials and the fossil fuel industry. It is for this reason that Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva attacked the report as a sham, stating:
“This process has featured multiple documented conflicts of interest, corporate failure to disclose relevant business ties, and a State Department more interested in greasing the skids than doing due diligence.”
That is the problem Obama now faces. Throughout the entire process it seems as though he has been searching for a reason, or maybe an excuse, to make a decision on the project. Analysts have always assumed he would eventually sign-off on the pipeline — the likely backlash by the fossil fuel industry seems far too strong for him to say no. This report now seem like his attempt to mollify environment activists in the process.
Technically that is what it has done. The report has given Obama the official tick of the box that he can use to argue that he did his due diligence on the climate. The problem for him though that it is so creative, and so shrouded in controversy, that if he does go ahead and approve the project the backlash will come anyway. Activists are already promising to continue to blockade the project, and vigils were held around the country on Monday to protest the pipeline.
Obama seems stuck. Approve the pipeline now and he will suffer a significant backlash from his base, a base he desperately needs to fight for him as his popularity wanes across the country. Don’t approve the project thought and he could be slammed for not following the very process he developed. This could particularly have impacts in conservative states such as Alaska, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, where Democrats are fighting to hold on to the Senate this year.
And this is a quandary of his own doing. In trying to have it both ways — holding on to his base while staying with a fossil fuel industry that is heavily engrained in his government — he has of his own doing set up a political nightmare. The simpler solution would have been to have done what is right from the beginning — block the proposal this time last year, which would have potentially hurt him in the short term but motivated his base at an essential time.
Luckily for him he still has the opportunity to make such a decision. There is still time to block the proposal, with the massive impact on climate policy that would come with that. And there is still evidence to back him up — as 350.org founder Bill McKibben said, the report still gives Obama everything he needs to block the project. One just has to hope he makes it. If he doesn’t, expect tensions and campaigns on the climate in the US to step up another notch.
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