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President Obama’s Stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline Grows Murkier


obama-keystone-pipelineA tough stance on the Keystone XL pipeline plan was a once a lynchpin of President Obama’s election platform, keeping environmentalists happy and confirming his interest in moving toward a clean energy economy. He ran his campaign on the promise to shut down the pipeline if it contributed to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of fierce opposition by the energy sector, the president issued an executive order requiring the State Department to make a determination on the projects viability. During this time, his tone changed dramatically, with a June, 2013 speech containing the words “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Interestingly enough, what the government study found was that the Keystone pipeline “would not significantly affect overall greenhouse gas emissions.” Part of their reasoning? Because the oil will be transported through other means if the pipeline isn’t built.

Not exactly a reassuring analysis….and one that glosses over water quality degradation, and the effects on local flora and fauna.

This now puts the President’s idea on what “significant” actually entails to the test. He already knows that the pipeline will contribute to overall emissions (the State Department noted that the total life-cycle will be equal to the annual output of up to 7.8 coal-fired power plants, or over 5 million vehicles), but where does he draw the line?

From his posturing in recent weeks, and even with his emphatic pronunciation that ‘climate change is a fact‘ during his State of the Union address, environmentalists and those opposed to Keystone should be extremely wary.

It is likely that his slow, but steady capitulation on the issue is a strong indicator that TransCanada will get their pipeline application approved within the next few months.

So why has the President laid down and acquiesce defeat? This seems to be predominantly political, and strong proof that the American economy is still in a very bad place. Decent GDP, corporate profits, and outlandishly overstated jobs numbers may show otherwise, but the fact that President Obama is even considering approving the pipeline this late in his presidency does not bode well for him or our nation’s future prospects.

First off, it infers that the President is looking in every nook and cranny to get our economy moving forward. If we have to approve projects which have a high probability of degrading our environment, soiling our water supply, and delaying our necessary move to alternatives by, yet again, bridging the gap with dirty fuels and little innovation, then we must be in a stagnating economic situation.

Second, it shows that politics are continuing to dominate policy making. The Keystone can be looked at more as an olive branch to the oil industry, their lobbyists, and a pro-oil congress, as opposed to a legitimate project that will help the country in the long-term.

111101_pipeline_protesters_ap_328When adding it all up, the Keystone has all the makings of a “lesser of two evils” situation, providing a safer and more environmentally friendly energy transfer than moving by freight or truck, but still negatively impacting our environment unnecessarily.

There is certainly a lot of rationalizing going on at the moment, particularly when the State Department notes in their report that tar sand produces 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional oil, a ‘significant’ number by many who study the climate, while downplaying the impact by mentioning that the product will be transported by other means if not through the pipeline.

Even if Congress, the President, and the State Department decide the pipeline’s pollution is not significant enough, the actual benefits of such project are quite weak. Although TransCanada and Keystone advocates like to tout 20,000 as the number of jobs the pipeline will create, this play on words includes each year the work stays on the project, automatically reducing this number to well less than half the stated figure.

Objective, nonpartisan studies have looked into this claim, with an expansive Cornell research project showing these expectations to be wildly optimistic and essentially impossible to achieve. Their findings tag the actual number at 2,500 – 4,650 jobs. The study also notes that TransCanada will be spending $3 to $4 Billion on the pipeline, as compared to the $7 Billion they first projected, and that the pipeline will have only a minor impact on unemployment levels, with many of the positions being short-term, temporary, and non-local.

Of course, this has a negative impact on the clean energy sector, which needs to grow at a much faster pace to avert a potential ecological disaster between humans and the environment. Putting a focus back on fossil fuels will slow the burgeoning industry, while also diverting resources from much better long-term alternatives like nuclear. The costs may even serve to outweigh the benefits as well, with an increase in the risk of (irreversible) economic damage due to delays, spills, infrastructure changes, and amplified emissions.

Yes, jobs will be created, and we will take advantage of our natural resources, which sounds fantastic, but is it all really worth it? Should we risk the health and happiness of Americans for a Canadian pipeline that will ship extremely dirty fuel to the Gulf, for use by a still unknown list of consumers?

This entire scenario rings of addiction in a way I never considered when George W.  Bush coined the phrase when he was president. We know it is not what we want, but the prospect of a temporary solution is tempting, even as we see our future grow cloudier every day.

So again, is it really worth it? According to an embattled President on shaky ground with a skeptical public and an antagonistic, powerful energy sector….Yes, yes it is.

Mr. President, our environment would like to have a word with you.

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