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President Barack Obama will soon have to decide whether to approve the enormous northern portion of the Keystone XL project, which would create a pipeline from oil production in the Alberta tar sands to Steele City, Neb. The southern portion of Keystone, already built, takes oil from there to ports in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president should reject the plan. Approval of Keystone XL would have a grim impact on humanity’s chances of mitigating climate catastrophe. The long-term negative effects would go far beyond the carbon pollution from the transported tar-sands oil.
In his State of the Union speech last week, Obama pointed out that “a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods.” While calling for new standards on “carbon pollution,” he said that “the debate is settled” and “climate change is a fact.”
Savvy backers of the project are therefore eager to lay groundwork for Obama to claim that the pipeline would actually result in lower greenhouse-gas emissions than any of the realistic alternatives. Supporters latched onto the recent State Department environmental review that found no major objections to the project — although the report acknowledged that the project could have a “significant impact” on climate change under certain scenarios, as writer and activist Bill McKibben pointed out. The quest is to effectively greenwash the pipeline, putting a favorable gloss on its mission to pump vast quantities of tar-sands oil from northern Alberta in Canada to refineries and ports on the Texas coast and onward eventually to be burned, sending more carbon into the atmosphere.
Prominent among such rationales is the claim that the mucky oil in Alberta’s tar sands will inevitably reach refineries, one way or another. If that ultra-crude oil doesn’t get pipelined south through the United States, we’re told, it will find its way to Canadian ports, with greater hazards of accidents via road and rail along the way.
The logic is akin to saying that Mother Earth will be in firing-squad crosshairs no matter what, so we may as well line up, take aim and pull the trigger and not worry about our culpability.
The product of such collective reasoning is collective suicide. Although refusal to go along with ecological destruction is no guarantee of a favorable outcome, refusal is a necessary prerequisite for creating one.
Power of example
When deciding whether to participate in a course of action that would be disastrous for the planet’s ecosystem, we should not underestimate the power of example — particularly when the U.S. government is setting the example with a momentous choice. People around the world are rarely convinced by a message that says, in effect, “Do as we say, not as we do.”
In July, when the United States and China announced joint climate-change initiatives, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I want to underscore that when we make a decision … it ripples beyond our borders.” Imagine what a go-ahead for Keystone XL would convey to the leaders and people of China, India, Brazil and other countries with explosive growth in carbon emissions.
From Beijing to New Delhi to Sao Paulo to other communities around the globe, policy planners and average citizens would hear Obama’s Keystone approval loud and clear as endorsement for their own options to extract, transport, refine, market and burn fossil fuels, unrestrained by concern about the planetary consequences.
On the other hand, imagine the impact if Obama rejected the Keystone project. The ripple effects would begin where mere eloquence leaves off — incomparably more meaningful than any amount of rhetoric about the threat of climate change. The U.S. government would finally be showing an impressive willingness to curtail the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Approaching the cliff
The vehement unity of environmental groups against Keystone XL is stunning. They’ve thrown down a gauntlet, contending that if the tar-sands pipeline is approved, then everything is permitted. They have also noted, quite rightly, how fossil-fuel corporations have tainted the process. As Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, recently said, “The State Department’s environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline is a farce. Since the beginning of the assessment, the oil industry has had a direct pipeline into the agency.”
At the moderate Natural Resources Defense Council, international program director Susan Casey-Lefkowitz was more restrained yet still blunt.
“Even though the State Department continues to downplay clear evidence that the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to tar-sands expansion and significantly worsen carbon pollution, it has, for the first time, acknowledged that the proposed project could accelerate climate change,” she said. “President Obama now has all the information he needs to reject the pipeline. Piping the dirtiest oil on the planet through the heart of America would endanger our farms, our communities, our fresh water and our climate.”
Our climate is fast heading toward a cliff. It’s long past time to slam on the brakes. But approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would floor the accelerator not just for the U.S. but for the entire world.