Eyeing Climate Legacy, Obama Rejects Pipeline Project

12 November 2015

US President Barack Obama announced on 6 November that the State Department would not be approving the Keystone XL pipeline project, a controversial proposal which had become symbolic – rightly or wrongly – for the White House’s broader stance on climate issues.

In a speech focused on clean energy and climate change, the US executive said that approving the transboundary project – which aimed to bring crude oil and bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands in Canada’s western province of Alberta to US refineries – would “not serve the national interest of the United States,” given the State Department’s assessment.

The State Department decision, Obama said, was the result of the following three findings: that the long-term economic benefits of Keystone would negligible; that the pipeline would not lead to reduced gas prices; and that “shipping dirtier crude oil” into the US would not yield benefits for domestic energy security.

The US President then flagged the various achievements under his administration in transitioning toward a clean energy economy, noting also the international ramifications of taking strong climate change-focused actions at home.

“As long as I’m President of the United States, America is going to hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world,” Obama said, noting that rejecting the pipeline was yet another way to lead by example. “And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can.”

Obama was referring to the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) being held under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where countries are aiming to clinch a new, global emissions-cutting deal that would take effect from the end of the decade, upon the expiry of the current Kyoto Protocol. (See Bridges Weekly, 29 October 2015)

In a related statement, Secretary of State John Kerry explained that the final Keystone decision also was due to findings relating to the impact the pipeline would likely have on local communities, heritage sites, and water supplies, as well as those mentioned in Obama’s remarks.

However, Kerry noted, “the critical factor in my determination was this: moving forward with this project would significantly undermine our ability to continue leading the world in combatting climate change.”

“The reality is that this decision could not be made solely on the numbers – jobs that would be created, dirty fuel that would be transported here, or carbon pollution that would ultimately be unleashed,” said the US’ top diplomat.

Question of rhetoric

The years of debate sparked by the Keystone approval process – and the heated nature of such discussions – have drawn criticism from both sides for being overblown, given the substance of the proposal at hand.

“Now, for years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse,” the US President said. “It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter. And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”

Though the State Department had found that the pipeline would create far fewer jobs than previously anticipated, only a handful of which would be long-term, some US lawmakers insisted that the move was a lost opportunity for the country’s economy.

“This decision isn’t surprising, but it is sickening. By rejecting this pipeline, the president is rejecting tens of thousands of good-paying jobs,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican from the US state of Wisconsin, claiming that the Obama decision was actually aimed at catering toward special interests.

Harry Reid, the Nevada official who serves as Senate Democratic Leader, countered that the decision was the right one, in which Obama and Kerry “are further cementing their environmental legacy.” Reid also referred to special interests in his remarks, claiming that the project would be only a favour to such groups.

TransCanada, the corporation behind the pipeline proposal, lambasted the President’s decision, also claiming that the debate itself was focused less on substance than on politics.

“Today, misplaced symbolism was chosen over merit and science – rhetoric won out over reason,” said TransCanada President and Chief Executive Officer Russ Girling. “Today’s decision cannot be reconciled with the conclusions of the State Department’s comprehensive seven-year review of the project.”

TransCanada had recently asked for a suspension of the State Department review, citing the need for clarity regarding whether a proposed preferred route through the US state of Nebraska could indeed go forward. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 November 2015)

The path forward for proponents of the pipeline remains unclear, with some US lawmakers raising the prospect of trying to override Obama’s decision. TransCanada has also said it will now review its options.

According to Obama, while new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “disappointed” in the decision, “we both agreed that our close friendship on a whole range of issues, including energy and climate change, should provide the basis for even closer coordination between our countries going forward.”

ICTSD reporting; “Obama Rejects Keystone Pipeline,” ROLL CALL, 6 November 2015.

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