Rethinking Opposition to Keystone XL
Some interpreters of Obama’s inaugural address say it means climate policy is now at the top of his political agenda. (Eg: “Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage“, NY Times)
Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have formed a “Bicameral Climate Change Task Force” which is “dedicated… to developing effective policy responses”. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce (Democrats) issued a press release. The statement: “Our window to act is closing” is attributed to Waxman. Whitehouse is determined to increase awareness of ocean acidification: “carbon pollution is wreaking havoc on our atmosphere and our oceans“.
Waxman-Whitehouse want to get “something” done. A letter to the President was sent. Another letter went out to 300 groups asking recipients what they thought the federal government could do in present day Washington.
Yet activists such as Van Jones are still pursuing the “make Obama stop Keystone XL at the US border” tactic, which was conceived in his first term. Here is Jones, in a post election interview aired on Public Radio International:
“The Keystone Pipeline is the environmental litmus test for this President, for the new generation, the rising generation of environmentalists in particular. This is their first big fight on the environment. It was their first big victory more than a year ago. If the President takes that victory away from them, he is going to break the hearts of an entire generation of young people, whom he’s expecting to stay in his coalition through the midterms and beyond, and I think he should do the right thing by them, but also, frankly, do the right thing not just by the young people today, but by their children and their grandchildren. The tar sands are the dirtiest, most dangerous fuels on Earth. They should not come out of the ground. They certainly should not come through the United States. It’s not just a litmus test issue, it’s a leadership issue. Is he willing to match his rhetoric with deeds? And we’ll see very soon if he is.” (transcript and audio of the complete interview is available here).
If the “movement” succeeds in persuading Obama he needs to spend some of his limited political capital by refusing to approve Keystone XL, there will be less political capital available to accomplish whatever else Obama may decide can also be done, including whatever comes out of this Waxman-Whitehouse initiative. And the result of no Canadian tar sand oil crossing the US border via the Keystone XL is likely to be the discovery by US activists that Canada can and will move its expanding oil production over its own territory to its own ports.
The “movement” might accomplish more if its political line was more coherent. “It’s game over for the climate unless the US border is closed to tar sand oil”, sold as a “litmus test” rather than as effective policy, isn’t a serious challenge to a President who appears to be looking for something meaningful that can be done.
The Supreme Court agreed long ago that Congress has already granted the EPA the power to limit CO2 emissions. Opponents of cap and trade understood there was a risk that if Congress did not find a way to use market forces to limit CO2 EPA would use regulation. The risk that pressure to eliminate the EPA altogether could become too great to stop if EPA regulated CO2 seems less now than prior to the election.
Opponents of Keystone XL could modify their position by saying the pipeline could be accepted IF the permit required tar sand oil entering the US to meet a new EPA standard limiting the CO2 that is emitted while it is produced. The standard would be for all oil imported into the US, all unconventional oil imported or produced in the US, or even all oil sold in the US.
The limit on oil production CO2 emissions could be tied to a benchmark like West Texas Intermediate. Producers of more CO2 intensive oil could remove CO2 from their production process, from some other industry’s production process, or from the atmosphere or ocean. A regulation subject to improvement as political will develops could prove to be effective, as opposed to forcing Canada to build pipelines to its own ports in order to sell more of its oil.
A call for EPA to regulate all oil would be more credible than this call to stop one pipeline from Canada at a time the US is expanding its own unconventional oil production at a rate analysts say could lead to US supremacy in world oil production.
Why waste scarce political capital on a “litmus test” when political will to do the slightest thing about climate is so limited voices such as the Breakthrough Institute’s Nordhaus have been heard saying anyone who merely believes it is possible to limit climate change to something that won’t threaten the existence of civilization should have their head examined. (Nordhaus actually took this position while claiming he has a viable climate policy people who don’t need their heads examined should pay attention to, when he was on a panel with Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund and Broder of the NY Times. Video and transcript here)
The Keystone XL effort as it stands, given Obama’s fresh mandate and inaugural speech declaration on climate, is too limited. The rhetoric circulating to support it is increasing climate confusion.
Many in Canada have assumed something like reducing CO2 emissions resulting from tar sand production would be coming eventually and a certain amount of R&D has already been done on how to reduce or compensate for the extra CO2 emitted. Supporters of US energy security now supporting Keystone XL would have more difficulty opposing CO2 regulation applied to all oil.
Canadians who are cynical about a US hammer coming down on their tar sand oil which exempts every other oil source in the world including US unconventionally produced oil could understand a fair and more politically salable barrier. Canadians could choose to pioneer carbon capture technology to make their oil salable rather than going ahead with their present plans to build whatever new infrastructure they need to sell their oil, assisted by whoever can come up with enough renminbi.
The Obama administration should be presented with a demand for a better strategy, one that can be clearly articulated as a small but meaningful step toward the goal that everyone concerned about climate change supports, i.e. stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere.
Why waste this particular political moment with a demand for a symbolic act sold as something Obama needs to do to avoid breaking the hearts of people who need a victory?