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February 01, 2014
Environmentalists Wait for Obama Decision on Keystone Pipeline
    by Robert Kropp

Following a State of the Union Address in which natural gas exploration was cited as a response to climate change, the State Department publishes its assessment of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

Just over one year ago, President Obama give the issue of climate change central pride of place in his second inaugural address. "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 in his speech.

And in a major speech on the environment delivered in June, Obama proposed rules that would limit the amount of carbon emissions from power plants, which are responsible for 40% of the nation's emissions. He directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop pollution standards for both new and existing power plants, basing its authority to do so on the Clean Air Act of 1970.

Many sustainable investors and other advocates for the environment were understandably disappointed, then, by the limited attention given to climate change by Obama in his State of the Union address delivered earlier this week.

“The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact,” Obama said. “And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” He pledged “to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.”

Working with Congress on the issue was noticeably absent from Obama's plan, but given that body's intransigence it is not surprising that such a strategy would be absent from his speech. So why the disappointment of many activists?

For one thing, addressing climate change was a relatively minor part of the address, accounting for fewer than 500 words. For another, many of those words were devoted to hailing the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing as a bridge fuel.

“You simply cannot have an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and be serious about addressing carbon pollution,” Erich Pica of the nongovernmental organization Frien ds of the Earth stated. “You cannot threaten to wield the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon pollution and call for regulatory streamlining and free-trade deals that limits governments ability to protect human health and the environment. And you simple cannot call for protecting more public lands and the elimination of tax breaks for oil and gas producers while continuing to back the expansion of natural gas drilling and other fossil fuel extraction.”

Then, on Friday, the State Department published its final environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to US ports. The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with tar sands extraction is up to 350% higher than that of conventional fossil fuel.

In 2012, a coalition of institutional investors organized by Ceres wrote to a trade group of 12 major oil sands producers in October, recommending the reduction of GHG emissions from oil sands extraction "to at least that of conventional oil production." But the investors also expressed skepticism that "these concerns can be adequately resolved while oil sands development continues on its present trajectory."

The assessment of the project by the State Department apparently concludes that the “present trajectory” referred to by Ceres has continued. While it agrees that the environmental implications associated with building the pipeline are pronounced, it further observes that oil will be extracted from the tar sands whether or not the pipeline is built. If the pipeline is not built, the assessment concludes, oil from tar sands will be transported by rail, resulting in even higher GHG emissions.

The assessment is “not a decisional document,” the State Department reports. The final decision will be made by the President.

“The State Department’s environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline is a farce,” Pica of Friends of the Earth stated. “Since the beginning of the assessment, the oil industry has had a direct pipeline into the agency. Perhaps most frustrating, is the apparent collusion between the State Department, oil industry and the Canadian government.”

“The report concluded that in a scenario where we take climate change seriously and regulate climate pollution, this pipeline will indeed have a ‘significant impact’ on climate change,” Bill McKibben of stated. “This report gives President Obama everything he needs in order to block this project.”


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