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How Will John Kerry Handle His 'Colin Powell Moment?'

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On December 2nd, at Georgetown University, I was pleased to participate in the half-day summit, "Can Keystone Pass the President's Climate Test?," organized by Tom Steyer and the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The goal was to address President Obama's assertion that "our national interest will be served only if [the Keystone XL tar sands export pipeline] project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." During the summit, my fellow speakers and I explored this question in depth.

Spoiler alert: We examined the pipeline from a variety of angles, but the answer was consistently the same -- that Keystone cannot possibly pass President Obama's climate test and, therefore, must be rejected. Given such a clear, definitive answer, the question is simple: What will President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other key decision makers do with this information?

Is the Friday release of the flawed and contradictory Final Keystone Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) a sign that Secretary Kerry and his State Department will ignore our findings, which are consistent with the findings of 97 percent of climate scientists? The FEIS shows agreement with my own analysis that Keystone will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, yet it downplays the magnitude and neglects the global warming potential of these gases. Is this what we can continue to expect from Secretary Kerry's State Department?

I mention Secretary Kerry specifically because a year ago, he "made it clear ... that he will play a pivotal role in deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline if he is confirmed as secretary of state." In addition, Secretary Kerry stated in March 2013 that "the science is screaming at us" to "take steps to prevent potential disaster" with regard to climate change. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that Secretary Kerry "has initiated a systematic, top-down push to create an agency-wide focus on global warming," the goal being "to become the lead broker of a global climate treaty in 2015 that will commit the United States and other nations to historic reductions in fossil fuel pollution."

Clearly, none of the goals Secretary Kerry has laid out are consistent with approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Yet right now there are numerous forces -- both inside and outside the Obama Administration -- pushing hard to approve this environmentally disastrous project, as the FEIS demonstrates. How else to explain the issuance of the FEIS despite the fact that Environmental Resource Management (ERM), the contractor that helped prepare the FEIS is closely tied to TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, and despite the fact that the State Department's own Inspector General has not yet released its report examining those ties?

Soon enough, we will find out whether or not John Kerry will have his own version of a "Colin Powell moment," and allow something he knows, or should know, deep down is wrong to go forward. In former Secretary of State Powell's case, it was the Iraq War. In Secretary Kerry's, it's the future of the planet. As I stated at the Keystone Summit, this pipeline -- along with the additional tar sands development it will spur -- is the worst of the worst, the dirtiest of the dirty fuels, both in terms of ecosystem destruction in the tar sands' production process and in tar sands' massive CO2 emissions per unit of energy on a "well to wheels" basis. To illustrate this point: The Keystone XL -- and the 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil it would transport -- would have a pollution footprint of 50-57 coal-fired power plants or 35-40 million cars. This would constitute a disastrous, and totally unacceptable, amount of additional CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.

Fortunately, all of this is avoidable. If, for instance, we just use energy more wisely through energy efficiency and energy innovation, the Keystone XL pipeline will not even be necessary. By increasing passenger vehicle fuel economy by just four miles per gallon, the U.S. could save all the oil that would have gone through Keystone. We can also put our efforts into encouraging clean, sustainable energy production, instead of doubling down on expensive fossil fuels that are ruining the planet and emptying our wallets. It makes no sense for President Obama and Secretary Kerry to tarnish their positive environmental records by approving this expensive, unnecessary project. Approval of Keystone would be their environmental legacy. In the end, the question is simple: If we can't say "no" to the expensive, environmentally disastrous, economically non-beneficial Keystone pipeline, what CAN we say "no" to?

Dr. John Abraham is Professor of Thermal Sciences at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and co-founder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team.

 
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