Keystone pipeline decision will determine Obama’s legacy

Watching President Obama give his inaugural address was uplifting. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said — and I felt almost as reassured as I had in 1988 when George H.W. Bush promised that he would battle “the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” But I fear the intervening quarter-century has allowed just the tiniest bit of cynicism to seep into my soul.

Here’s why: the president didn’t go on to say, “and therefore I’m going to kill the Keystone pipeline just as soon as I can.” 

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If there were ever a stupid and indefensible scheme, it’s this long straw from the tarsands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. But so far it lives on, sustained by the vitalizing transfusion of lobbying dollars. In the wake of the president’s speech I kept hearing whispers: “Oh, environmentalists will trade him the pipeline for an end to Arctic drilling,” or for new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, or some other shiny object. 

In fact, Keystone is the only environmental issue that has drawn large numbers of activists into the streets across the country in many years. It spawned the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country, when 1,253 people went to jail in opposition in the summer of 2011. It gave rise to the biggest one-day communications push in congressional history, when 800,000 Americans flooded D.C. offices with emails and faxes. 

Want to know why? Because 18 months ago, our most respected climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, calculated that because that patch of tarsands oil is so big, and because the sandy bitumen it contains is the dirtiest oil on earth, burning it on top of everything else we burn would mean it was “game over for the climate.”

The president apparently wasn’t quite sure Hansen was correct — he asked for a year’s delay to study the pipeline more deeply. In that year, Mother Nature filed fairly compelling public testimony, including the hottest year in American history, the deepest drought since the Dust Bowl, and Hurricane Sandy. Oh yeah, and the Arctic melted — but hey, it’s just one of the four or five biggest physical features on earth. 

By this point, the project’s proponents aren’t even trying to make arguments. It’s clearly not going to lower gas prices — in fact, the glut of Canadian oil backing up without a pipeline means that a new outlet will raise prices. It’s clearly not going to be “sent to China anyway” — everyone in Canada concedes it will be many years, if ever, before the resistance to a new pipeline to the Pacific can be overcome. It’s clearly not going to contribute to “energy independence,” because the stuff’s going to be shipped immediately overseas. It will create a few thousand good construction jobs, but every analysis for more than a year has shown these would be far outweighed by the people put to work building a clean-energy economy. 

At this point, in fact, it’s become the definition of a bad idea — how many other proposals in the history of mankind have been described by reputable scientists as likely to overwhelm the planet’s life-support systems? And yet it does not go away. Fifty-three senators just signed a letter supporting it — good news, I guess, because it’s down from the 56 who supported it a year ago. (Perhaps because the issue had exactly zero traction in last fall’s elections — ask Republican Connie Mack how much good his $5 million in Keystone ads did him in his House Florida race. Not one Keystone opponent lost their race in November.)

To understand why it never dies, though, you need to know just one thing about those 53 senators — on average, they’ve taken $551,000 from the dirty (carbon-emitting) energy industry, 340 percent more than Keystone’s opponents. It’s money against science, money against the public interest, money against the future. 

Happily, Congress doesn’t decide. The president does, by himself, which is why the largest climate rally ever will descend on Washington on Feb. 17, with the express purpose of telling Obama that this is the one clear pure test of his climate resolve. Block it, and he’ll have us at his back; approve it, and his climate legacy is written. 

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” Obama said in his inaugural address. True enough. But sometimes — this time — it’s actually pretty easy. Just say no. 


McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org.