Keystone XL oil pipeline: a tough decision for Obama

By Theresa Mallinson 1 September 2011

Greenies have been camped outside the White House since 20 August in an effort to convince Barack Obama to nix plans for an oil pipeline running from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. And they say the president will lose their support if he doesn't say no to the project. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Since Saturday 20 August, the Tar Sands Action campaign has been protesting outside the White House in Washington DC. The “sit-in” will continue until 3 September. The organisation’s aim? To pressure US President Barack Obama into denying a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline – a project which seeks to transport crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to US refineries in the Oklahoma, Illinois, and as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

The $7 billion project would create the longest such pipeline outside Russia and China. Canada’s National Energy Board approved its portion of the Keystone XL back in March 2010; in the US, it’s taking a little longer, with activists up in arms about the environmental impact. Their online petition, “Tell President Obama: No to Keystone XL”, is short and succinct: “The tar sands represent a catastrophic threat to our communities, our climate, and our planet. We urge you to demonstrate real climate leadership by rejecting the requested permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and instead focus on developing safe, clean energy”.

However, on Friday, the US State Department gave the project the environmental go-ahead, with pipeline developer TransCanada having agreed to take measures to reduce the risks of a spill. But there are still several other processes that must be completed before it gets the final green light, including approval by other agencies and public hearings.

And, ultimately, Obama has the power to call the whole thing off – or not. His decision will be less an environmental one than a political one. He’ll need to balance the part Keystone XL could pay in creating employment (potentially as many as 20,000 jobs), and meeting the energy needs of the US (friendly neighbour Canada is already its largest supplier of oil); against an environmental outcry, and what the loss of the environmentalists’ support will mean for his 2012 election campaign.

Writing in the Huffington Post about why he’ll be supporting the Tar Sands Action protest, Robert Naiman says: “The final determination on the permit will be based whether approval would be in the ‘national interest’ of the United States. This is an inherently political determination. By denying the permit for the pipeline, President Obama can take a concrete action against climate chaos without securing one Republican vote, without spending one tax dollar, without getting approval from the Tea Party”.

Watch: Daryl Hannah arrested in White House protest.

On Tuesday morning, Obama’s press secretary, Jake Carney, was questioned by reporters about the protest outside the White House. The transcript reads:

Reporters: Also, anything on these protests outside the White House on this pipeline? Has the President decided against TransCanada’s permit for the pipeline? It’s the tar sands pipeline. There have been a lot of arrests outside the White House about it.
Carney: I don’t have anything new on that. I believe the State Department has – that’s under the purview of the State Department presently, but I don’t have anything new on that.
Reporters: Is the President aware of the protests?
Carney: I haven’t talked to him about it.

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, who is leading the Tar Sands Action campaign, was not amused. “Just in the last two days everyone from the president’s chief climate scientist to an 84-year-old grandmother was arrested on his front doorstep,” he said. “This is the largest civil-disobedience action in the environmental movement in a generation, and if they really aren’t even discussing it with the president, that signals a deep disrespect for their supporters, especially young people who have demonstrated that the environment is a top priority.”

It would be pretty strange if Obama hadn’t noticed a campaign that’s seen 595 people, including actress Daryl Hannah and Nasa scientist James Hansen, arrested so far – and is right outside his front lawn. And he’d better get an official briefing on it soon, because it’s turning into a hot topic. Although it’s a complex issue, the greenies’ equations is simple: if the president chooses to go ahead with the project, then they won’t love him any more. “If he doesn’t cancel the project, he will have lost our support,” McKibben told The Daily Beast.

That support is not insignificant. As The Daily Beast points out: “In 2008, green groups like to note, they helped Obama raise a substantial amount of his $500 million campaign windfall. And virtually all of the major groups endorsed him over Hillary Clinton”.

The votes for Ralph Nader (running under the Green Party banner) in 2000, would’ve been enough to secure the presidency for Al Gore if they’d gone to him instead. This point will no doubt be in Obama’s mind as he weighs up the pros and cons of the Keystone XL project. But in April he said at a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania: “I will make this general point… importing oil from countries that are stable and friendly is a good thing.”

And the fact of the matter is if the US pulls out of the project, it’s not like the tar sands oil will stay untapped – it’ll probably find its way China, leaving the US to meet a larger portion of its energy requirements by dealing with far less tame regimes than Canada. Now how is that a good thing? iM

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Photo: Actress Daryl Hannah was one of the protesters arrested outside the White House on Tuesday. Reuters


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