A decision on the XL pipeline could define Obama's green agenda

Pipeline protestors Protestors against the XL pipeline have taken their argument to the White House

Even before he was sworn in for a second term President Obama's in-tray has been bulging with letters about climate and energy issues.

The big, looming problem that encompasses both areas is the Keystone XL pipeline.

This $7bn, 1,700 mile trans-national project is meant to bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the refineries of Texas. Backed by industry but opposed by environmentalists it has become hugely divisive, with protestors taking to the streets outside the White House.

A year ago, President Obama kicked the issue into the long grass. Writing at the time, my former colleague Richard Black analysed the background to the decision.

But the long grass has now wilted and the President will shortly have to give a final yea or nay.

In a recent letter to the President, 18 well known climate scientists urged him to reject the pipeline on the grounds that it increases US reliance on fossil fuels.

"Eighteen months ago some of us wrote you about the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, explaining why in our opinion its construction ran counter to both national and planetary interests," the letter said.

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It is an unenviable dilemma for a President who in his first term tended to steer a middle course on climate and energy issues”

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"Nothing that has happened since has changed that evaluation; indeed, the year of review that you asked for on the project made it clear exactly how pressing the climate issue really is."

But another letter, from the premier of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and signed by 10 state governors, stressed that the pipeline guaranteed energy supplies into the future from a reliable source.

"With the Keystone XL Pipeline, U.S. imports from Canada, a democratic friend and ally, could reach 4 million barrels a day by 2020, twice what is currently imported from the Persian Gulf." it said.

It is an unenviable dilemma for a President who in his first term tended to steer a middle course on climate and energy issues, sometimes supporting the environmental argument sometimes supporting the economic rationale.

He championed the reduction of emissions from cars and power plants, while at the same time expanding exploration for oil and gas in the Arctic.

If he now supports the pipeline, he will be accused of giving in to industry. Reject it and he will be accused of sacrificing American jobs for ideology.

In his inaugural address the President indicated that climate change would (once again) be a priority - but more than words, his actions on XL will be likely to set the tone for energy and climate issues in his second term.

Matt McGrath Article written by Matt McGrath Matt McGrath Environment correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Yes, lets turn the US into a museum for out-dated technologies. The new oil pipeline could power a new fax machine factory or the steam engine servicing institute.

    Alternatively the US could look to the future and invest in renewable energy like its economic competitors are beginning to do.

    Continuing to invest in fossil fuels will be a disaster for the environment and the economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Obamas rhetoric on the environment and climate change is nothing but lip service to the environmentally minded. Just last month he lowered the EPA recommended standards on industrial boiler pollution "MACT", tripling the amount of hydrogen chloride they may emit, which will lead to premature death and asthma in tens of thousands. When industry flexes it wallet, Obama is just another politician.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The global oil industry, and in particular the Amercian end of operations, have proved themselves singularly unable to practice their industry safely.

    Even if you care not for worrying about how your fuel consumption effects the climate consider the massive pollution incidents caused by the oil industry - espcially US sub contractors of the big firms......

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Money talks, which for the non-carbon future medieval environmentalists dream of is essential in paying for it. So we'll continue to use what's cheapest and most convenient for now, since the opportunities electricity brings are ours by right, until the necessary technological breakthroughs arrive. As for those with no rights to carbon electricity though; no pipelines, no opportunities, no debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The US will keep on burning oil for as long as they can get it. It may as well come from a local source, rather than from the Middle East.
    A pipeline gives them lower transport costs, whether you measure in dollars or tons of CO2 burned by tankers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    You don't have to close down oil to be green. America's economic recovery depends on competitively priced energy to help bring some of the offshored industries home. While oil and gas usage is going to be around for centuries there is that much of it, with structurally higher prices the market is already forcing through much greater energy savings which is helping to protect the environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Putting the pipeline underground will satisfy all parties. It will be EXPENSIVE. But in the long run will pay for itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I'd call myself green, and I have major concerns about global warning. But from the little I know, I feel the objections are more kneejerk than sensible.

    The US needs to do more on 'green' energy; but that isn't going to happen overnight. It'll be years.

    Meanwhile, Obama needs to use what resources he can - he also needs to safeguard supplies - which would reduce the risk of further war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    He'll probably agree to it, the US doesn't give a s*** about global warming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Obama is not on the fence, then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I was a land agent on the original Keystone Pipeline Project (which went into service in 2010), and bought a majority of the land rights in the state of Nebraska for the line to be built through. Keystone XL is simply an expansion of that existing line. Frankly, if the U.S. doesn't buy and use the oil, other countries will. Its going to get used either way. Green activists can't win this fight

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I wouldnt like to be in Obama's position. But, just as US fracking has slashed gas prices, more convenient oil strengthens the economic argument against doing the right thing in the long term. The pipeline would make further measures to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, in favour of more sustainable alternatives, even harder for the ever more hydrocarbon-dependent consumer (voter) to swallow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    [#4 cont]
    It makes simple sense that oil from a relatively local and well regulated source should be far greener than oil from more remote and far less well regulated sources. Politically the argument is even stronger potentially reducing the USA's need to involve itself in future wars. + This also has a massive positive impact on the environmental side because war is very environmentally costly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Hate to say it but even considering the environmental perspective this pipeline does make quite a bit of sense. The key environmentally is that it is treated as a short term solution and not as a long term replacement verses better efficiency and or greener alternatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Oil bad, gas bad, wood bad, nuclear bad, wind and solar too expensive for ordinary folk, besides it 'has' to be backed up by the former bad fuels. Still, I don't see many folk riding horses to work, but then eco-nuts are often the most hypocritical and hysterical(Gore). Oh and as for leading scientists, in reality they know so much about so little that in effect they know everything about nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    If Obama opts for the pipeline it doesn't necessarily follow he is rejecting the message of climate change. In the short term (until alternatives are sufficient enough to rely on) the pipeline is essential. And the real bonus will be reducing reliance on the the Middle East. Win Win Obama. Go for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I suppose it's just the standard argument; more dependency on oil vs. continued dependency on foreign countries that aren't as friendly as Canada.
    If they do choose to build it, they'll have to make sure it doesn't end up another multi-billlion dollar white elephant like Yucca Mountain; destoryed by legal challenges and idiotic decisions.



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