Last Tuesday, June 25, United States President Barack Obama gave a major address on his plans for climate change. Environmentalists lauded Obama’s policy plan; he was finally fulfilling a long ignored campaign promise. However, Canadians were left parsing and interpretating a section of the speech, did Obama already decide the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline and what exactly is that the decision? The pipeline is a central component of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s economic agenda.
Obama spoke at Georgetown University in Washington to an audience of students and environmentalists. The majority of the climate change program Obama unveiled in his speech would bypass Congress, and be implemented by executive order. Obama’s program focused on reducing carbon emissions from power plants and energy efficiency.
Addressing the Keystone XL pipeline Obama stated:
“Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. (Applause.) The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.”
Obama addressed the Keystone XL pipeline despite the fact the project is under the State Department’s review, and he should have not interjected additional opinions prior to the review being complete.
Obama emphasized that the pipeline should only be constructed if it does not increase greenhouse gas emissions, the main criteria for proving the project was in the United States best interest. The entire fate of the proposal seems to hinge on one fact, a subjective one at that, since it is difficult to entirely estimate the emissions the pipeline could cause.
New Democrat MP Megan Leslie stated after Obama’s speech; “On the one hand, that was a really clear statement about Keystone. But on the other hand, it’s not so clear, because how will that be determined? Who will be determining it? I think we’re still in a little bit of a wait-and-see.”
The President was only looking at the environmental aspects of the pipeline as opposed to the economic opportunities it would afford for the economies of both the U.S. and Canada, with job creation, and less dependency on foreign oil.
Both sides; supporters and opponents of the pipeline are claiming victory from Obama’s comments on it. Environmentalists are looking to the fact that Obama used the word tar sands rather than oil sands, a derogatory term used by environmentalists and dissenters who believe the pipeline would be an environmental disaster. Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver stated; “I don’t think nomenclature is the most important thing…. there is no tar in the oil sands.”
Oliver gave the Canadian government official response to Obama comments in a statement; “Today President Obama made clear that Keystone XL would be approved if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of greenhouse gas emission. We agree with President Obama’s State Department Report in 2013 which found that, ‘approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area’.”
Oliver also discussed the economic affect the pipeline would have on both countries; “This project is in the … national interest of both our countries.” Oliver also pointed out that “This pipeline has been the most studied pipeline in the history of the world.”
With a climate program meant to appeal to the environmentally conscious, Obama’s statement towards the Keystone pipeline, although vague leads one to wonder whether in the end Obama would go against the environmentalists he was trying to please with his environmental plan.
Supporters and the opponents of the pipeline have been lobbying to have the U.S. government either approve or reject the proposal.
The Canadian company which owns the pipeline system, TransCanada has been lobbying in Washington to get the project approved. They are trying to appeal to the benefits economically, but also trying to ease environmentalists that have been so virulently against the pipeline’s construction.
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling was “pleased with the President’s guidance to the State Department, as the almost five-year review of the project has already repeatedly found that these criteria are satisfied.”
They are arguing other methods to transport the oils would cause more damage to the environment; “If Keystone XL is not built, it’s clear that the oil will move to market by truck, rail and tanker, which will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions to move the product.”
The company also argued that Canada only emanates two percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and oilsands only represent five present of Canada’s total. A fact that pro-pipeline group “Oil Sands Fact Check” seems to corroborate; “Canada accounts for only two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and emissions from oilsands are a small fraction of that.”
Environmentalists and Democrats within Obama’s party have been vehemently against the pipeline’s construction. Environmentalists are concerned about greenhouse emissions and possible leaks in the pipeline. Environmental groups have fiercely protested the construction of the pipeline at various sites particularly in Texas, and in front of the White House.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a fierce opponent to the pipeline commented after Obama’s speech; “The president’s commitment today to only approve the tar sands pipeline if there is no net increase in carbon pollution is promising, but tar sands are one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet and the devil is in the details.” Her opinion on the pipeline is representative of most Democrats in Congress.
The pipeline extension through the United States was first proposed in 2008. Since first considerations, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have been at odds about the pipeline, with the State Department less concerned that it would increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The State Department’s first report on the project opposed the pipeline being built through the Nebraska’s Sand Hills region, and recommended TransCanada consider an alternative route. The Sand Hills is an ecologically significantly area, and the state government also opposed construction through the area.
Obama also originally rejected the pipeline in 2012 because the route from Alberta to Texas refineries went through the Nebraska’s Sand Hills region. Obama however, allowed TransCanada to put in a new proposal with an alternative route. The alternative plan is the one now being considered by the State Department. Additionally, Obama has already approved the southern part of the pipeline from Oklahoma through Texas.
The State Department has already released a preliminary report in March which seemed to conclude that greenhouse emissions would not be an issue, and stated; “no substantial change in global greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Environmental Protection Agency disputed the State Department’s preliminary conclusions; they claimed the study is “insufficient.” The State Department will release the final report this fall; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will then make a recommendation whether to build the pipeline or not. After which President Obama will make the final decision by the year’s end.
The Keystone XL oilsands pipeline has been a contentious issue for both countries. The pipeline is an integral part of Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s economic and natural resources agenda, which he intends to focus on in the fall. The pipeline would carry oil from Alberta’s oilsands through to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. Harper indicated that 830,000 barrels of oil would pass through the pipeline each day, creating thousands of jobs and a definite boon for the economies on both sides of the border.
Republicans in the US Congress’ both houses; House of Representatives and Senate support building the pipeline. However the pipeline faces opposition from environmentalists and Democrats; members of Obama’s own party are opposed to its construction. In late 2011, Republicans in the Senate and the Republican House pushed that Obama make a decision on the pipeline within 60 days, with the House passing legislation in Dec. 2011forcing the issue.
On May 22, 2013, House Republicans passed the Northern Route Approval Act by 241-175, which will allow the pipeline to be passed by Congress without Obama’s approval or a Senate a vote. The Senate is controlled by Democrats, and most probably would face rejection.
Republicans seemed divided in interpreting Obama remarks on the fate of the pipeline. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office stated; “the standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline.” While Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) claimed in a news release; “Mr. President, what are you thinking?…. If the Obama Administration rejects Keystone XL, it will be one of the most shortsighted decisions in memory.”
It’s not surprising that Republicans reacted negatively to Obama’s entire climate plan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., responded on the Senate floor; “It’s tantamount to kicking the ladder out from beneath the feet of many Americans struggling in today’s economy.”
In the end Obama’s speech might have clarified the majority of Obama’s positions and plans for climate change and his second term environmental policy, but even when trying to analyze Obama’s position on the pipeline, the president gave nothing away and left more questions and answers for Canadians.
Only President Obama himself knows his intentions towards it, and maybe he has not fully decided what to do either. His comments are a cliffhanger that will only be answered at the end of the year.
- United States President Barack Obama’s speech on Climate Change. June 25, 2013
- White House Climate Action Plan
- U.S. State Department New Keystone XL Pipeline Application
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & International politics.