Tale of 2 Obamas and 1 Pipeline


Just two men are responsible for making the decision about whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline — President Obama and his secretary of state.

Pipeline supporters tout the construction jobs the project would create and the advantages of shifting U.S. energy dependence from the tumulus Middle East to our friendly neighbor to the north. Opponents, in addition to disputing the validity of those claims, fear pipe breakages, contaminated watersheds and a devastating increase in global warming.

James Hansen, a NASA climatologist who pipeline opponents cite regularly, calls Canada’s tar-sands oil the “dirtiest of fuels.” He notes that its development would raise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by 120 parts per million and result in “a climate system out of control.” Developing the tar sands, Hansen says, is “game over for the climate.”

The pipeline would transport tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, across the U.S. heartland to refineries 2,000 miles away on the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone agrees building the pipeline would open the floodgates to the tar sands, doubling current American oil imports. Alternatively, economists and oil industry representatives admit that without the pipeline bottlenecks would prevent millions of gallons of tar-sands oil from reaching the global market annually.

Environmentalists are tentatively optimistic that the pipeline will be rejected. After all, a re-elected Barack Obama spent more time during his 2013 inauguration speech discussing the need to address climate change than any other specific topic. He also nominated John Kerry as secretary of state; Kerry has been a champion of environmental causes since the 1980s.

In addition to these recent pro-environment signals from the president, Obama has historically supported combating climate change. In 2006, then-Senator Obama attacked President George W. Bush’s energy policy, insisting that climate science be accepted and America be weaned from fossil fuels.

“For decades, we’ve been warned by legions of scientists … that we couldn’t just keep burning fossil fuels without consequence. And yet, for decades, far too many have ignored the warnings,” Obama said seven years ago.

Then, after winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he again brought climate change to the forefront, promising that “generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

During his first term as president, Obama doubled fuel-economy standards on cars and light trucks, to 54.5 miles per gallon. He invested heavily in the electric-vehicle battery and clean-energy industry; since 2008, the United States has nearly doubled its renewable energy generated from wind, solar and geothermal sources. The president also placed aggressive regulations on coal-fired power plants that make new plants nearly impossible to build.

Based on his rhetoric and actions, one would think the Keystone XL pipeline application would be a non-starter for this administration.

The problem is that the Obama described above is not the only Obama making promises to Americans. There is a different Obama who delivers speeches when environmentalists aren’t listening. The Other Obama campaigned for a second presidential term promising an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy for America. The Other Obama patriotically proclaims on the White House website that he created aggressive reforms to offshore oil regulation, “to ensure that our nation can … responsibly expand development of offshore energy.” The Other Obama continues to permit Shell to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Sea despite a growing blooper reel of errors committed by the oil company.

Obama could have denied construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011, but, instead, the Other Obama kicked the can down the road by delaying the decision rather than standing with the environment. The Other Obama’s decision was based on a deadline technicality, not the environmental dangers associated with building the pipeline.

“This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people,” the Other Obama announced.

Then, a few months later, in what many took as a signal that he would approve the pipeline, the Other Obama told Rolling Stone, “I have the utmost respect for scientists, but it’s important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do.”

This is the stance from which the Other Obama wants to make the pipeline decision. In this scenario, America gets the jobs, oil and energy security from tar-sands production or China does.

Unfortunately for the Other Obama, this claim doesn’t represent reality, according to oil industry experts and economists. In June 2011, Ralph Glass, economist and VP of AJM Petroleum Consultants, said, “Unless we get increased access (to markets), like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck. … We’re going to hit a wall (and our) production is going to be backed out of the system. … I think it will have a dramatic impact.”

Brian Ferguson, CEO of tar-sands producer Cenovus Energy Inc., said, “Keystone itself is very important to the industry.”

Alberta’s energy minister, Ron Liepert, said he is “kept up at night” by fears that “we’re going to be landlocked in (tar sands). We’re not going to be an energy superpower if we can’t get the oil out of Alberta.”

The problem for tar-sands producers is that many of their proposed pipelines are under attack, not just the Keystone XL. This is something the Other Obama isn’t accounting for.

Last October, 4,500 protestors convened on the British Columbia legislature to protest the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline slated to run from the tar sands, through British Columbia, to tankers near the coast. Once on the tankers, the oil would navigate narrow and environmentally fragile waterways before reaching the open Pacific. The pipeline is currently undergoing additional environmental review in part because of strong opposition from many First Nation tribes in Canada, who have taken legal action against the pipeline and fought to keep the pipeline off their lands.

Enbridge Inc., the company behind the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, made headlines in 2010 when one of its existing pipelines broke and spilled about a million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The oil promptly sank, highlighting the fun fact that tar-sands oil, unlike conventional oil, is actually heavier than water. Confounded clean-up crews spent the next two years inventing methods to clean up submerged oil. In July 2012, the river reopened to recreational activities after the longest and costliest pipeline cleanup in American history.

In January, New Englanders made their position on the tar sands clear, when more than 1,000 protestors rallied in Portland, Maine. Rumors are circulating that tar-sands oil could be piped from Montreal, across Vermont and New Hampshire, into Portland. At the rally, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan spoke out against that idea and in favor of developing renewable energy. “We need to expand the market for renewable energies and eliminate the demand for tar sands and other fuels that are not only a root cause for climate change but also carry real risks of pollution and spills in our backyard.”

The actual stance from which Obama needs to make his decision about the Keystone XL pipeline is one where he recognizes that if it is rejected, tar-sands producers will have to scale back oil production expectations drastically until they can figure out another way to get their oil out of Alberta. Based on widespread opposition to tar-sands pipelines in both Canada and the United States it’s likely that production would be limited for years to come, providing more time for additional responsible energy options to be developed.

Obama has talked a lot about false choices during the course of his public career. He insists that we need not choose between the environment and jobs. He is right. The green economy has enormous job potential. He reminds us that we need not choose between our liberty and our ideals. He is right. American security and freedom have stood side by side for more than 200 years. By acknowledging these false choices Obama shows he is a man who prefers compromise to winners and losers.

Unfortunately, the president’s upcoming choice about the Keystone XL pipeline is not a false one; the physics of climate change refuse to compromise. The Other Obama wants badly to turn Keystone XL into a false choice. He claims, “Keystone got so much attention not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared about a lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem.”

In other words, the Other Obama believes we need not choose between Keystone XL and a livable climate. The Other Obama is wrong.

Developing the Keystone XL pipeline means adding 240 gigatons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere, according to projections. That is 42 percent of the carbon pollution we can add without exceeding the 2 degree Celsius temperature increase that nearly all scientists and nations agree upon as the workable limit. This means the president has the real choice between building the pipeline and moving the world’s population of 7 billion and growing vastly closer to a devastating temperature limit, or he can reject the pipeline and take a giant step toward committing America to a transition to renewable energy.

I wonder which Obama will make the decision.

Kevin Proft is an ecoRI News staff member.