Obama’s Keystone and climate opportunity

Since the recent release of yet another State Department environmental impact study, the media frenzy around the Keystone XL pipeline decision has centered on the putatively impossible political dilemma confronting the Obama administration. Approve the pipeline, the conventional wisdom goes, and infuriate the far left of the Democratic base ahead of the mid-term elections; deny the pipeline, and incur the wrath of moderate Democrats, the GOP, the oil industry, and Canada, perhaps imperiling other priorities.

Instead of agonizing, the White House should realize that the decision actually affords the President a golden opportunity to educate the American people about what really matters regarding climate change policy, and what doesn’t. In the process, the president has a chance to exercise the essence of leadership—turning political danger into an opportunity to further a critical national interest.

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Given the focus on the greenhouse gas implications of the Keystone project, you would think the pipeline is the most important climate issue facing the U.S.  In truth, it’s not even close. As the State Department environmental report found, building the pipeline would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.  Strong global demand and high oil prices means that oil sands will be lucrative to develop and will find their way to market, whether or not Keystone is built, the report found.

In short, stopping Keystone is hardly the key to climate protection.  The administration’s climate policy includes many efforts, both at home and abroad, that are far more important to climate protection, yet which they are allowing to be overshadowed by Keystone. 

For example, auto fuel economy standards negotiated with industry will over time cut greenhouse gas emissions by six billion tons, or more than a year’s worth of total U.S. emissions. The administration has promulgated regulations through EPA to reduce emissions from new power plants, and is now writing standards for existing plants, the biggest source of US greenhouse gases.  Obama has backed a record expansion of renewable energy and made tens of billions in investments in energy efficiency and breakthrough energy technologies.

The president has also supported the U.S. shale gas boom, which is allowing the use of lower emission natural gas to substitute for higher emission coal for electricity generation, and that has the potential to displace higher emitting heating oil in the Northeast and dirtier diesel fuel in America’s trucking and long haul transport industry.  In part due to these measures, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest levels in 20 years, and the nation is on pace to meet its goal of cutting emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.  

Internationally, the president has negotiated agreements with President Xi Jinping of China and the G-20 heads of state to support a phase down of the super greenhouse gas hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs, which would avoid the equivalent of 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 (or the equivalent of three years of global CO2 emissions) preventing 0.5 degree Celsius in warming, at incredibly low cost.  The contrast with any possible reductions from denying Keystone is laughable.   The administration should make an HFC phase out later this year through the Montreal Protocol a top priority. 

The administration also recently announced that it will no longer support funding of coal-fired power plants without carbon capture through the World Bank, which will be crucial in helping to turn developing nations, whose emissions are growing rapidly, away from coal to cleaner alternatives.

Whether the administration denies the Keystone permit--or, more likely, when it approves it--the president should use the occasion to highlight not just current climate policies, but to announce additional measures.  For example, cutting coal emissions, especially in the developing world, is the essence of the climate problem, yet the administration has let efforts to build commercial scale carbon capture and storage CCS languish.  The administration should redouble its CCS efforts, both at home through tax incentives, and abroad in partnership with major developing countries.  

New science shows that black carbon, or soot, is the second largest greenhouse source, but little effort has been made to reduce it around the world, and work is especially essential with China, India and other major emitters where regional impacts could be destabilizing.  The long-running UN climate negotiations have been characterized by absurd expectations and few results.  The administration should use its recent work on climate at the head of state level to push for achievable commitments by all major nations under a UN agreement—not legally binding treaty—by the late 2015 meeting in Paris.

Keystone can be President Obama’s Sister Souljah moment on climate, the chance to talk hard truth to all sides--the far left who is overstating Keystone’s climate impact, and the right who is denying the climate danger and blocking more serious action.  In the process, the president has a chance to become a true climate leader, not merely a symbolic one.

Bledsoe is a senior fellow in the energy and society program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  He was communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.