Three days ago, President Obama pulled out his veto pen to derail the latest attempt by Big Oil's members of Congress to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Since then, there's been a lot of chatter among pundits about what the veto means for the environmental movement, what it means for the president politically, and what it means for Big Oil's bottom line. That kind of chatter is more often than not just noise -- and this time is no exception.
So let's cut through that, and look at the facts. The president's veto is a big deal, and a powerful victory for our movement. Few imagined this kind of win even just a few years ago, when D.C. insiders predicted Keystone XL would be approved by the end of 2011. But the veto is just step one. Now, President Obama needs to move forward and reject Keystone XL once and for all. Pipeline opponents will be working even harder in this home stretch to make sure the president follows through and issues a real rejection.
Yet, as we get down to work, the chattering continues, most of it benign and familiar, but some of it betraying a fundamental lack of familiarity with the science around climate change. Yesterday, former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg penned an op-ed arguing that President Obama should approve the permit for Keystone XL as a favor to Canada. In return, he argues, the U.S. could convince Canada to sign a broader climate change deal that offsets the emissions from a new pipeline. Soon afterwards, a news story quoted a "U.S. official" floating the same idea. It's the kind of thing that seems reasonable if you don't look too closely -- but completely falls apart under an even cursory examination.
Keystone XL has never been merely symbolic, nor is it something we can stomach in exchange for leverage in negotiations. The pipeline is a gateway to Canada's tar sands, some of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels on planet Earth. That's why the nation's top climate scientists have repeatedly written President Obama and Congress urging them to oppose the project. The logic is simple: if you build the pipeline, more tar sands come out of the ground, and more carbon goes into the atmosphere. Case closed. Just last month, a scientific study in Nature showed that if we're serious about averting the worst impacts of climate change, and keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to leave 85 percent of Canada's tar sands in the ground. Considering the impacts we're already seeing from climate change around the world, even burning that remaining 15 percent is a fool's errand. Building new infrastructure like Keystone XL that would lock us in to additional development is the definition of insanity.
Some pundits have written that tar sands will magically make their way to market without new pipelines, but the facts don't back them up. Oil-by-rail isn't feasible, Energy East faces massive opposition -- and even according to President Obama's own EPA, Keystone XL would "change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur." In other words, Keystone would unlock the tar sands, opening the floodgates on another source of carbon emissions that would mean game over for our climate. That's why this is a fight we have to win, and why this pipeline isn't something we can negotiate with -- it's simple math. Signing off on a massive carbon bomb in exchange for a paper promise from a Big Oil politician to cut emissions some percent by a future year is the definition of a Pyrrhic victory. It's a lot like saying "it's okay to eat three cheeseburgers today as long as I write a plan tomorrow to cut back on fatty foods in two years."
So as we close out the home stretch, we're going to see pundits and adversaries try again and again to dodge the science on Keystone XL. We'll doubtless see more creative "ideas" that try to circumvent making the tough right call and prop up Big Oil's bottom line, but none of them change the basic facts. Keystone would light the fuse to one of the biggest carbon bombs on planet Earth, and push climate change past the brink. It's a crucial crossroads, which is why our movement will continue the campaign we've been waging for years, until we put this pipeline to rest for good.