Activist Wednesday: Obama Punts on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Now What?
Posted November 16, 2011on:
Do you all remember a while back when I wrote about the Keystone XL pipeline? This is the pipeline that was slated to carry toxic petroleum products from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, all the way to Texas, potentially polluting many important water supplies along the way. This proposition was made even more dubious by the terrible safety record of the TransCanada company, the company that would build and oversee the pipeline.
TransCanada already attempted to cut corners by seeking a safety waiver to build the pipeline with thinner-than-normal steel and to pump oil at higher-than-normal pressures. Thanks to the pressure exerted by Friends of the Earth and allies, the company withdrew its safety waiver application in August 2010.
The threat of spills remains. In summer 2010, a million gallons of tar sands oil poured into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a pipeline run by another Canadian company, Enbridge. The spill exposed residents to toxic chemicals, coated wildlife and has caused long-term damage to the local economy and ecosystem.
Heightening concerns, TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline has spilled a dozen times in less than a year of operation, prompting a corrective action order from the Department of Transportation. Experts warn that the more acidic and corrosive consistency of the type of tar sands oil being piped into the U.S. makes spills more likely, and have joined the EPA in calling on the State Department to conduct a thorough study of these risks.
The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse six U.S. states and cross major rivers, including the Missouri River, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers, as well as key sources of drinking and agricultural water, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies two million Americans.
The decision to allow this pipeline to proceed first went through the State Department for review, and then was left in Barack Obama’s hands. Our Fearless Leader, in the midst of his usual tortured decision-making process (known as “creating a space where decisions can happen”), began receiving quite a bit of negative feedback from environmental activists. Petitions were signed, sealed and delivered; massive sit-ins were held at the White House; and finally, Barack wrinkled his august brow and decided…to punt, postponing a decision until after the 2012 elections. TomDispatch (via Mother Jones) posits that this move shows Obama’s awareness that the environment will be a key election issue in 2012.
The pipeline decision was a true upset. Everyone—and I mean everyone who “knew” how these things work—seemed certain that the president would approve it. The National Journal runs a weekly poll of “energy insiders”—that is, all the key players in Washington. A month to the day before the Keystone XL postponement, this large cast of characters was “virtually unanimous” in guaranteeing that it would be approved by year’s end.
Transcanada Pipeline, the company that was going to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the tar-sands fields of Alberta, Canada, through a sensitive Midwestern aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico, certainly agreed. After all, they’d already mowed the strip and prepositioned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipe, just waiting for the permit they thought they’d bought with millions in lobbying gifts and other maneuvers. Happily, activists across the country weren’t smart enough to know they’d been beaten, and so they staged the largest civil disobedience action in 35 years, not to mention ringing the White House with people, invading Obama campaign offices, and generally proving that they were willing to fight.
Ah, yes. A group with an actual goal, that went to the source of the problem, made demands, and refused to give up until their demands were met. How utterly old-fashioned – and effective!
But alas, here’s the rub: Obama could still change his mind. And he could be leading the activists on by simply postponing the decision until his re-election in 2012, at which point he would be free to approve the pipeline without fear of retribution at the ballot box. At least TomDispatch is honest enough to entertain this possibility.
No permanent victory was won. Indeed, just yesterday Transcanada agreed to reroute the pipeline in Nebraska in an effort to speed up the review, though that appears not to change the schedule. Still, we’re waiting for the White House to clarify that they will continue to fully take climate change into account in their evaluation. But even that won’t be final. Obama could just wait for an election victory and then approve the pipeline—as any Republican victor certainly would.
So, what does this sorta-kinda decision mean for 2012? Will environmentalists, terrified of a President Romney blithely signing off on the Keystone XL Pipeline with barely a twitch in his magic underwear, rush to the ballot box and vote for Obama? According to Common Dreams’ Glenn Hurowitz, that is entirely the wrong approach.
…This decision just puts off a green light for the tar sands by a year. And it’s unclear to what extent the administration is really reconsidering the pipeline, or just reconsidering the poorly chosen pipeline route.
That’s why I’m a little dismayed at suggestions that this kick-the-can decision means environmentalists will enthusiastically back President Obama in 2012. Is the price of an environmentalist’s vote a year’s delay on environmental catastrophe? Excuse me, no.
We cannot abandon the tough approach that brought victory even as the administration throws us a bone. Shifting the pipeline route is helpful, but it doesn’t get at the bigger problem that exploiting the tar sands is a climate catastrophe and deadly to millions of acres of boreal forests and their songbirds. The fuse on the tar sands carbon bomb was just made a year longer, but let’s not forget that it’s still burning.
And let’s not forget that despite quite positive moves on fuel efficiency, the Obama administration weekly announces what RL Miller has called mini-Keystones: greenlighting major fossil fuel projects relatively under the radar like a coal mine on public land outside Bryce Canyon, massive expansion of offshore drilling, failing to regulate coal ash sufficiently, or letting coal plants off the hook on water use.
In other words, the climate crisis is still spinning out of control and Obama is seeking to split the difference. Unfortunately, splitting the difference doesn’t work when you’re dealing with planetary physics. It’s getting a lot hotter out there, more species are dying, more states are bursting into flames and countries drowning in floods. Obama’s instinctual conflict avoidance just isn’t going to cut it when it comes to the existential task of saving the planet. For the sake of the planet and our country, he’s got to get over it.
Bill, Jane, and thousands of activists have got Obama on the ropes on this one. Let’s push a little more and defuse this carbon bomb once and for all.
Mr. Hurowitz is correct. The way to force politicians to make better decisions is to withhold your support and your vote until they meet your demands. Of course, for that to happen you not only have to actually have demands, but also show up in DC and get up in said politicians’ faces day and night, something few of today’s “activists” seem to have the willingness to do.
As for climate change being an election issue in 2012, the article in TomDispatch states that it’s now obvious to most people how unstable the climate is becoming. I have to agree with that. It’s barely dipped below 60 degrees this entire fall; some days have been over 70. This weekend will vary from the 40s to the 60s. Of course there was that freak blizzard on October 29th, which caused our Pat to be MIA for more than a week and millions of people from MA to NJ to be without power; Hurricane Irene, which caused massive flooding and washed away entire towns in late August; the devastating tornadoes which ripped through the Midwest this past April; the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last March; and far too many more to count. This state of affairs, combined with the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (the effects of which are still being felt), has hardly made Big Oil more popular in America.
So what do you think? Is Obama actually trying to get environmentalists on board with him in 2012? Or is he just trying to split the difference, as Mr. Hurowitz suggested? If he wins re-election, will he just say “neener neener!” and sign off as nonchalantly as The Glove would have?
This is an open thread. (I will try to put up a Lounge on Friday night.)
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