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Climate Change

President Obama Carbon-Shames Keystone XL Pipeline In Big Climate Speech

The much-anticipated President Obama climate change speech on Tuesday at Georgetown University easily topped 6,000 words, but one of them really stuck out for us: Keystone. That’s because, of all the disastrous fossil fuel projects that have clouded the American landscape with increasing regularity, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is the only one that the President mentioned by name. So, did President Obama just carbon-shame the notorious Keystone project into a corner, or is there still a possibility that the pipeline will be built?

Obama singles out Keystone in climate speech

Pipe (cropped) by Banjo Brown.

The Obama Climate Speech And Climate Science

To answer that question, let’s go back and take a look at the basic structure of the Obama climate change speech. You can find some good summaries online but it’s an easy read (here’s a link to the video and transcript) and well worth your time.

If you don’t have time to read the speech or a summary, you can just take our word for it. The whole beginning is an exposition of climate science going back to the 1800’s, leading up to modern record-keeping in the 1950’s and concluding with the current state of affairs.

The current state of affairs, for those of you just tuning in, consists of an economic disaster in the making that will make the Great Depression look like a mild case of overspending at the local Dollar Store.

Mentioned in the speech are the property damage caused by rising sea levels and storms that increase in intensity and destructiveness, more intensive (and expensive) wildfire seasons, extreme cycles of flood and drought that hamper agricultural production, loss of tourism dollars especially in winter sports, drinking water scarcity, and a consequent impact of all this on insurance premiums.

This leads up to a forceful argument for less talk and more action. Err, make that no talk and all action. If anything was clear about the President’s speech, it was the fact that the time for arguing the merits of climate science is long past. Global warming is a real phenomenon and solutions are at hand — namely, in the form of controlling greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.

President Obama And The Keystone XL Pipeline

In that context, it seems pretty clear to us that TransCanada, the owner of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, has a tough row to hoe.

For those of you unfamiliar with the project, the proposed pipeline will carry notoriously “dirty” tar sands oil (more precisely, diluted bitumen or dilbit) from Canadian fields through the heart of the American breadbasket states, down to Gulf Coast refineries for the export market. Since the pipeline will cross an international border, it will require approval from the Administration through the State Department.

Although the President did not specifically mention the fact that a foreign company owns the project, he did make a point of noting that it involves transporting a foreign-sourced petroleum product through US soil.

That reference alone appears designed to raise some red flags regarding who exactly stands to gain financially from the project, US citizens or stakeholders in a foreign company. Though perhaps a bit subtle, for those who are parsing the speech it’s an important point in the context of the economic issues raised by the President.

For those familiar with the project, “Gulf Coast refineries” raises another red flag. Petroleum products refined from Keystone XL dilbit have already been committed to the export market served by Gulf Coast facilities, which means that the pipeline will have little or no effect on the price or availability of petroleum products in the US. It will therefore be of little or no benefit to US consumers from one end of the spectrum to the other; in other words, from me and you on up to the Department of Defense.

As outlined in the speech, though, the real meat of the Keystone issue is carbon emissions. The project, described as a “carbon bomb” by opponents, seems tailor made for rejection by the President’s own criteria, as stated in the speech:

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.”

Again, for those of you familiar with the project, “net effects” indicates an awareness that the project does not simply involve adding more oil to the global supply. It also involves more lifecycle carbon emissions. Extracting oil from tar sands is an energy-intensive process that also involves substantial loss of biomass, and the petcoke (petroleum coke) byproduct of bitumen refining is itself a notoriously dirty fuel that is already accumulating in mountainous heaps around the US.

Putting The Keystone Pieces Together

Some observers have viewed the President’s remarks on Keystone as a bit unclear, but if you look at them in the context of the entire speech, the pattern emerges.

Given the emphasis on climate science and carbon at the beginning of the speech, the President is clearly referencing Keystone and our national interests in the context of global carbon emissions and their impact on global climate.

Now take a look at the middle of the speech, which includes all of the technological innovations, public-private partnerships and economic activity that the President envisions marshaling to establish the US as a global leader in reducing carbon emissions, and ask yourself if it makes any sense for the federal government to enable a project that directly undermines all of that investment in talent, dollars and national willpower, by exporting carbon emissions overseas.

We’re not exactly going to bet the ranch on it, but it sure looks like the President means to step on Keystone’s neck to reach his climate action goals.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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