Friday, November 18, 2011

Obama: Just say NO to Keystone XL

After 1,252 arrests this summer, a rally of more than 10,000 people at the White House earlier this month, and six months of grassroots protests, rallies, and petitions across the country, the State Department announced last week that it was delaying a decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline until at least 2012.

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What is the Keystone XL pipeline? A 1,700 mile TransCanada pipeline that would carry 900,000 barrels of oil each day from the tar sands in Canada through the U.S. to refineries in Texas. The pipeline would cut through six states, over seventy rivers and streams, aquifers, farms, and backyards, and disrupt native communities.

Extraction of the oil poisons the air and water, requires hundreds of millions of gallons of water each day, and requires deforestation of the boreal forest in Canada. The oil is bitumen, an especially dirty oil whose refinement results in 20% more carbon emissions than does conventional fuel.

The jobs the pipeline would create would be mostly temporary. The environmental, social, and public health costs of the pipeline over decades and centuries would outweigh any short-term job creation. This pipeline would only increase our dependence on fossil fuels for energy, at a time when our money would be better invested in safe, renewable sources of energy.

Much more after the jump...

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When I first heard the news of the State Department’s announcement, I was hesitant. Wasn’t a delay a disappointing result of our activism? But I saw the overwhelmingly positive response from environmental groups, and I thought that there might, indeed, be reason to celebrate. An email from arrived in my inbox: “Big news: We won… The American people spoke loudly about climate change and the president responded. There have been few even partial victories about global warming in recent years so that makes this an important day.” President Obama, the email read, deserves thanks.

It’s true that a delay is much better than approval of the pipeline. As noted, some analysts say that a delay will effectively kill the pipeline. Furthermore, Obama did face tremendous financial and political pressure from supporters of the pipeline. In calling for a thank-you to Obama, the email acknowledged, “…it’s not easy [to make a decision] in the face of the fossil fuel industry and its endless reserves of cash.” The Natural Resources Defense Council celebrated Obama, too: “President Obama took a stand for the people of Nebraska today, and Americans everywhere, when his administration stood up to Big Oil to say we won't put our people, waters and croplands at risk for the sake of pipeline profits and dirty fuels.”

Yet the more I thought and researched, the more disillusioned I became. First of all, the State Department announcement doesn’t say that there will be more investigation of the overall environmental effects of the pipeline. It says that the Department wants to look into alternate routes for the pipeline so that it does not pass through the ecologically vulnerable Sand Hills area of Nebraska. The statement reads, “Taken together with the national concern about the pipeline’s route, the Department has determined it is necessary to examine in-depth alternative routes that would avoid the Sand Hills in Nebraska in order to move forward with a National Interest Determination for the Presidential Permit.”

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Unfortunately, just a few days after the announcement, the Nebraska state legislature and TransCanada reached an agreement to reroute the proposed pipeline so that it avoids the Sand Hills region. Since the main reason for the State Department’s delay seems to be concern over the Sand Hills, this implies that a new review would give the pipeline a green light.

Furthermore, in the announcement the State Department claims to have been, since 2008, conducting “a transparent, thorough and rigorous review” of the pipeline application. It’s absurd that they won’t acknowledge the well-documented conflicts of interest and corruption that have rendered their “rigorous review” a national scandal.

Friends of the Earth has diligently documented the corruption endemic in the State Department’s relationship with TransCanada. They write of new FOIA reports obtained from TransCanada, “The evidence indicates State Department employees have inappropriately shown favoritism toward TransCanada – acting as though it was their job to ensure the pipeline was approved rather than that an impartial review was conducted.” The State Department allowed TransCanada to choose the firm that would conduct its environmental review – and TransCanada chose one of its major clients, which, predictably, produced a favorable review of the pipeline. In addition, Hillary Clinton, head of the State Department, has a problematic relationship with TransCanada – her former campaign aide is now a TransCanada lobbyist.

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Furthermore, President Obama didn’t even take responsibility for the decision. In a statement, he declared his “support” for the State Department’s announcement. Support? Why doesn’t he make the decision himself? And why such a brief statement about such an important issue? He observed that the decision “could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment.” But no matter where you stand on the issue, there is no “could” about it – it will without question affect global health, safety, and the environment. And he concluded the four-sentence statement with a rather arrogant exaggeration of his environmental record: “At the same time, my administration will build on the unprecedented progress we’ve made towards strengthening our nation’s energy security, from responsibly expanding domestic oil and gas production to nearly doubling the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks, to continued progress in the development of a clean energy economy.”

Was Obama merely playing politics by pushing the decision until after the election, as he has done with other important environmental decisions? What if a Republican, who would surely approve the pipeline, is elected in 2012?

In any case, there is no good excuse to delay such an important decision. President Obama should have given an outright “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline. Environmental groups are right to celebrate the astounding progress that they have made in the past six months, since the pipeline wasn’t even an issue before Bill McKibben and his organizers had the courage and strength to start this movement. But we have to hold Obama to the promises he made to us in 2008 – the promises that we expected him to fulfill when we elected him. So for my part, I say: President Obama, a delay is not enough. Just say NO to Keystone XL.

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