Usborne in the USA: What's it going to be, Obama, a hard line, or the pipeline?

Keystone XL has become a test of Obama’s commitment to a green agenda

It’s been a switchback few days for lovers of the planet in America.  In his State of the Union speech, Barack Obama flatly asserted that the global warming debate is phony and over. “Climate change is a fact. 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 also vowed that this should be a year of “action” and that whenever Congress adopted its usual obstructionist crouch he would be moving the ball on his own.

Draw a straight line from one to the next and you might assume that nixing a proposed new pipeline to carry black goo from the Alberta tar sands to thirsty refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast – the Keystone XL – would be first on his agenda.

But straight lines don’t happen in Washington. Last Friday, the State Department at long last released its final environmental impact report on the project and it was a body blow to the green lobby. 

Compiled by consultants who have in the past worked for the Canadian company that wants to build the pipeline, it offered lots of frightening carbon footprint projections yet concluded finally that it wouldn’t “significantly” change the current climate equilibrium. And anyway, it went on, preventing its construction wouldn’t make much difference because Canada would presumably find another way to get its oil to market.

Since it was first proposed in 2008, the Keystone XL has become a totem for environmentalists who have invested enormous effort and cash in lobbying against it and made it a test of Mr Obama’s professed commitment to a green agenda. 

The State Department report has only galvanised them. On Monday, thousands of opponents of the pipeline demonstrated outside the White House and in cities all across the country hoping against hope they can still get their voices heard.

TransCanada, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s backing, wants to lay nearly 1,200 miles of new pipeline from the tar sands in Hardisty, Alberta – where the violent extraction and squeezing of oil-bearing sands long ago gave the lie to Canada’s supposed environmental credentials – all the way to Nebraska, where it would connect with an existing pipeline to carry 830,000 barrels a day to the refinery complexes in Port Arthur, Texas.

Building it could bring 50,000 new jobs. That alone explains why pressure on Mr Obama to approve it is immense, especially from Republicans, who would also prefer that America gets its oil from friendly Canada than from say Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. The State Department says it would inject $3.4bn into the US economy.

“Please pick up that pen you’ve been talking so much about and make this happen,” Mitch McConnell, the minority Republican leader in the US Senate said this week. “There’s nothing complex about the Keystone pipeline – it’s time to build it,” chimed in House Speaker John Boehner.

Only Mr Obama’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, was more disingenuous when he claimed last weekend that as the President weighs his decision his first concern “is to protect this process from politics”.

The issue is extremely complex and particularly so because it is so entirely entwined in politics. And Mr Obama looks trapped. If he approves it, his liberal supporters will call him a fraud as an environmentalist. If he vetoes it, Republicans will call him a fraud as a  jobs creator. And he has to make his  mind up soon just as this November’s mid-term congressional elections are approaching. Tellingly, there are already three Democrat senators in tough  re-election races who have switched sides to supporting the project.

There are already more than 2 million miles of pipeline laced beneath America’s soil, so what’s a few hundred miles more? First, pipelines can break. But then there is the nature of the oil from Alberta. It is heavy bitumen which generates 17 per cent more carbon pollution, on average, to extract and refine and burn than traditional crude. In a worst-case scenario depicted in the State Department report, bringing that bitumen to market would mean an extra 27.4 million tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere every year, the equivalent of the annual emissions from 5.7 million cars, 1.4 million homes or eight coal-fired power plants. Everything the President has done in office to reduce emissions would be wiped out.

Any poll will tell you that improving the economy and creating jobs is the first thing on the minds of Americans and protecting the environment is, well, not. A survey by Stanford University and Resources for the Future shows them backing Keystone 56 per cent against 41 per cent.  With the State Department saying blocking it will not make a difference in the end, what do you expect Mr Obama to do?

But if, as most of Washington now expects, he approves the pipeline, it will be an opportunity tragically missed to finally show leadership, take a stand and say that the short-term pressures of growing the national GDP and creating jobs must be subjugated to the longer-term imperative of breaking the world’s fossil fuel addiction. 

Only then will he, or any of us, be able to look at our children’s children and say: “Yes we did.”