The Keystone XL pipeline is back in the news. I have talked about this several times, most recently in December. This is the pipeline intended to carry 830,000 gallons of tar sands oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. From there, the refined oil will be exported to be sold on the international market.
The reason it's in the news again is that the State Department has issued its report on the pipeline. State was involved because the project crosses an international boundary. Supporters of the pipeline are saying the report gives Obama no real choice but to approve its construction. And at first glance, based on the spin it's being given, that could seem to be the case.
However, there is a real problem with the report: It attempts to change the subject, or, more exactly, to change what question is being asked.
In Obama's climate speech last June, he said to be approved the pipeline must be in the national interest and that would only be true if, his words now, "this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
Okay, but what constitutes "significant?"
|Tar sands pit|
However, that State Department report has its own notion of what "significant" means: It concluded that the Keystone XL pipeline would not significantly affect overall greenhouse gas emissions because the oil will be transported through other means if the pipeline isn't built.
In the words of the report,
approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refiners in the United States....Which frankly is like arguing that there is no significant danger to smoking cigarettes because one more cigarette is not going to significantly change your risk of getting lung cancer.
The point is, the report changed the question. Instead of asking if, in the light of climate change, it's in our national interest to help promote and expand use of the dirtiest oil source there is, it restricted the question to the means of transporting the oil from the well to the refinery. And because the impact on greenhouse gas emissions by sending the gunk by pipeline won't be much different from that by sending it by train, well, therefore the project has no significant impact on greenhouse gases, no significant impact on global warming.
Put another way, the State Department considered the means of transportation but gave no thought to what it is that's being transported. It tried to change the subject and do it to the benefit of Big Oil.
As Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University put it, the report "self-portrays the US Government as a helpless bystander to climate calamity" and as "trapped in the Big Oil Status Quo."
And State maintained this attitude even as it was forced to acknowledge that the Keystone XL pipeline will drive tar sands expansion and therefore accelerate climate change - which was supposed to be the question under discussion, remember? When Obama addressed the pipeline, it was in the context of global warming.
This isn't the last word on the project and it still faces considerable opposition. But there are also powerful voices behind it and in the wake of the State Department report, they already are using it to push for a quick approval - no doubt fearing, with good reason, that delays will allow time for the failures and misdirections of the report to become more widely recognized.
But if, as I think is true, Obama wants to endorse the project but wants to find a way to do it without generating too much backlash from his environmentalist supporters, the danger is that this report could provide an opening to him to do it. And on climate change, that would be a disaster.