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Keystone & Beyond

by John H. Kushman Jr


Not so fast
On April 18, 2014, as Good Friday services were being held at Washington’s National Cathedral and cars were jamming the highways out of town for the Easter weekend, the State Department announced another delay in the Keystone project.

Because the pipeline’s route through Nebraska was still being reviewed by the state’s Supreme Court, the State Department said it wouldn’t be possible for all the federal agencies involved in the national-interest review to comment by May. The delay meant the Keystone decision would likely be postponed until after the November mid-term elections. Construction would be delayed even further. There was no way TransCanada could get its first summer of work out of the way in 2014. The delay meant something more subtle, as well.

The energy marketplace is changing so fast that even a six-month delay could bring more evidence that the United States doesn’t need additional imports from Canada, at least not any time soon. Measured in barrels per day, the increase in U.S. oil output during 2013 and 2014 is already substantially more than the amount of oil Keystone can carry. Proven reserves of oil in the ground are gaining 15 percent a year.

Climate diplomacy, too, is barreling ahead at the speed of the train à grande vitesse bound for Paris. There, in December 2015, the world’s leaders are supposed to approve the final draft of a new climate treaty, one that will commit them all to reversing carbon pollution in the decades ahead. The present path, the IPCC scientists have told them, will soon push the world past the moment when dangerous levels of global warming cannot be escaped.

The timetable for the treaty is brisk, the deadline short. In September, Obama and other heads of state will meet at the United Nations to muster their willpower. In December, in Peru, negotiators will hammer out a first draft. Early in 2015, each nation must declare precisely what it’s willing to accomplish on its own.

Pledge of resistance
Scientists pondering the most serious risks of climate change sometimes talk about “tipping points,” moments when the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere might cause extraordinarily swift disruption of the climate system. A melting permafrost belching out methane, the ocean’s thermal layers inverting, the collapse of an entire coral reef ecosystem from acidification—however speculative these may seem in advance, or however slow in arriving, none are beyond possibility.

As hard as they are to predict, these scientific tipping points can be just as hard to recognize, even when such big changes are upon us. Even today there are those who pretend that the vanishing of the Arctic’s summertime ice, or the onslaught of a historic drought, aren't yet well enough understood to be accepted as signals that the climate is already changing and that no part of the world will be untouched.

In politics and in policy-making, too, there are tipping points. Something changes, and an immovable object is overturned by an irresistible force.  The income tax, women’s suffrage, voting rights, marriage equality—the times simply changed. Whoever wins the Keystone debate, the very fact that it has become so intensely charged suggests some kind of tipping point on climate change policy has arrived, with the Keystone its fulcrum.

If Obama rejects the Keystone, he will be opposing a powerful industry that has deep pockets and many allies, including most members of the U.S. Senate. In early April, 2014, 11 Democrats wrote Obama urging him to approve it right away. Their letter was orchestrated by Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, chair of the Senate Energy Committee and one of several Democrats facing stiff challenges in the upcoming mid-term elections. Landrieu and John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, had the support of 56 co-sponsors for a binding law that would ram the pipeline through. Four more Democrats would give pipeline advocates the 60 votes they need to move forward under Senate rules.  Its supporters were trying to attach it to a much less controversial bill, a bipartisan energy conservation measure popular with Republicans and Democrats and supported by environmentalists, business groups and the White House.

Senate Republicans weren’t limiting their power play to the Keystone, though. They also wanted legislation to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding that put carbon dioxide under Clean Air Act regulations, reject the agency’s proposed rules on coal fired power plants, and spurn other central elements of Obama’s climate agenda. In the House, Republicans are simultaneously working on legislation that would entirely eliminate the executive branch’s power over the Keystone and similar projects. In some ways, this effort isn’t just about climate change or energy policy. It is about Obama.

As the battle over climate action wears on, a new warning emerged via the latest National Climate Assessment, a broad, peer-reviewed, authoritative consensus of federal agencies and their scientific advisors. Published on May 6, its message was blunt and clear: Climate change can no longer be viewed as a distant threat. It has arrived. And so has the time to do something about it.

If Obama approves the Keystone, he will face the wrath of a reinvigorated environmental movement, including wealthy liberal donors and increasingly confrontational grassroots groups. Close to 100,000 people have gone so far as to sign a “pledge of resistance” declaring themselves willing to risk arrest if Obama approves the Keystone. Mobilized by Credo Action, the political arm of the progressive phone company, they have been trained in nonviolent techniques of direct action and civil disobedience. “It was a huge effort to put behind an action we hope we never have to take,” said Elijah Zarlin, one of the organizers.

On Earth Day 2014 and in the week that followed, a colorful group known as the Cowboy Indian Alliance encamped near the White House and demonstrated in full western regalia on the nearby National Mall. Wizipan Little Elk, of the Rosewood Sioux, and Art Tanderup, a Nebraska farmer, waded into the Reflecting Pool, where a generation ago throngs had listened to Martin Luther King speak of his dream. Thigh deep, they unfurled a banner of resistance. “Standing in the water could get me arrested,” it said. “TransCanada pollutes drinking water and nothing happens.”

Obama’s Keystone decision is about whether to break from the past in action and not just in rhetoric.

Almost 15 years ago, Bush and Cheney set forth on the path that leads to Keystone XL on the rationale that America’s oil supplies were declining and its oil demand was increasing. They called the science of climate change uncertain. The idea of leaving most of the world’s fossil fuel untouched was unthinkable.
Today, America’s oil supplies are ample, its innovation unlimited, and its thirst for oil is being quenched. At the same time, the scientific understanding of dangerous, manmade climate change is irrefutable, making the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels inescapable.
For Obama to endorse Bush’s “no-brainer” mentality now, based on these new facts and instincts, would be like reviewing the post-war evidence of Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass destruction, counting up the trillion-dollar cost of the war in Iraq, looking at what has resulted and deciding to march on Baghdad all over again.

Just as that war defined Bush’s legacy, the Keystone decision is central to Obama’s. He has John Kerry to advise him on the science and diplomacy, and John Podesta to weigh in on the politics and the fine print. Both are experts in the issue; both have made their personal commitments clear. But they cannot make up his mind for him. They cannot turn the decision into a no-brainer. They cannot shield him from blame or share in any credit.

The permit is Obama's to sign, or not. And the pen he uses, or lays aside, will be a souvenir his children will inherit.

◊ John H. Cushman, Jr. is a former writer & editor forThe New York Times, now with  InsideClimate News. The above is an extract from his new e-book, which exhaustively re-examines the Keystone project in light of the emerging science & economics of energy production, global carbon budget & ongoing negotiations for a global climate treaty. Publ. here 13.5.2014

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