In his weekly address yesterday, President Barack Obama singled out highlights of his hour-long remarks Wednesday at high-ranked Knox liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illnois. President Obama recalled his plan of “a better bargain for the middle class and folks working to join it.” In Galesburg, he also reconfirmed the commitment he had made earlier about climate change and fielded questions about how his administration would evaluate the controversial $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline proposed by TransCanada for transporting Alberta’s tar sands oil to refineries in the Houston area.
“The pipeline plan has become a flashpoint in the U.S. debate over climate change,” boston.com reported earlier this year. “Republicans and business and labor groups have urged the Obama administration to approve the pipeline as a source of much-needed jobs and a step toward North American energy independence.” Environmental advocates have been pressuring President Obama to reject the pipeline, saying that the tar sands bitumen it would carry is more carbon-intensive than lighter oils and more prone to spills. Both conditions make it a more dangerous contributor to global warming than what our pipelines have traditionally carried.
President’s perspective on Keystone XL and climate change
Until recently, Mr. Obama has had little to say about climate change. However, he first brought it up in the 2008 election race. The Defense Department started planning for it in 2010. The President chose to mention it in the 2012 race, when Mitt Romney totally ignored the subject. Obama touched on it a little harder in his second Inaugural and State of the Union addresses this winter and finally gave his first major address on climate change on June 25, at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. And he linked the environmental phenomenon to Keystone XL.
“Energy has to be about more than one pipeline,” he stated then. “The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project [Keystone XL] can go forward…. Our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”
At Galesburg, in the first of a series of talks on middle class and the economy this summer, the President mentioned the subject of climate change again. Also, in an associated interview with The New York Times, reporters Michael D. Shear and Jackie Calmes quote Obama as repeating his previous position that approval of the XL pipeline would depend on its carbon impact on earth’s atmosphere.
Kerry has final input on decision
The President also repeated that he would make the final decision about the pipeline only after a recommendation by Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading the State Department’s review of the issue. Because it would cross an international border, the State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline. However, the nation’s top environmental authorities and the scientific community at large have faulted State’s March draft assessment for failing to consider climate and related impacts of the pipeline.
In May, following protocol, the State Department initiated public comments on its draft. A concern of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations is the news that State’s contractor for the assessment, London-based Environmental Resources Management, which positions itself as “the world’s leading sustainability consultancy,” had a substantial conflict of interest going into its assessment of the pipeline for the department.
“ERM lied to the State Department about not working with TransCanada. In fact, ERM and TransCanada have worked together at least since 2011 on another pipeline project in Alaska [the Alaska Pipeline Project, a TransCanada partnership with ExxonMobil]. ERM lied again when it said it had no relationship with any business that would be affected by construction of the Keystone XL, which would carry tar sands oil from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. In fact, ERM’s own publicly available documents show that the firm has business with over a dozen companies with operating stakes in the Alberta tar sands.”
Gas prices will not drop with Keystone XL, might harm the Midwest
In the Times interview yesterday, the president disputed a frequently heard argument that the pipeline would help lower gasoline prices at the pump. Obama pointed out that most of the heavy oil would be piped to refineries on the Gulf Coast, and then exported. He also reportedly said that the pipeline might actually increase prices somewhat in the midwestern states.
Another concern is possible pipeline design or installation flaws. Last summer, the President expedited the completion of the southern part of the pipeline.The developers moved forward, so 75% of the Oklahoma-Texas section, which does not require cross-border permits, has already been constructed. However, TransCanada recently dug up a 60-to-70 mile stretch of it in east Texas after the discovery of about 40 “anomalies.” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard reportedly said that the repairs were made “out of an abundance of caution,” but they are nonetheless a concern to neighbors and pipeline critics.
Environmental role of Canada
Canada, source of the new tar sands oil much touted by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and reported center of the largest industrial project on earth, is both a close ally and the largest energy supplier to the United States. The climate debate rages north of our border as fiercely as here.
Environmentalists, Inuit and other aboriginal groups, and scientists there have claimed that unchecked development of the oil sands devastate the environment over the long term. To counter their objections, the government of Alberta established an agency last fall to monitor the environmental impact of extracting and shipping oil from the tar sands.
The nation has also been disturbed by the over two-month ongoing spill near Cold Lake at the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. steam-injection Primrose bitumen emulsion site, about halfway up along Alberta’s eastern border. Being in situ drilling instead of strip mining, this type of petroleum extraction is more carbon-intensive.
Four seeps in the area have affected acres of boreal forest, contaminating vegetation, killing wildlife, and possibly even on their way to affecting groundwater. The new Alberta agency has shut down operations within a kilometer and cut down steaming nearby, but the long-term consequences that may involve the ecosystem and climate change remain unclear. The incident also calls into question the efficacy of Alberta’s fledgling regulatory system.
In his interview this week, President Obama said that Canada might “potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release”–in other words, to slow down the global greenhouse effects of the Alberta petroleum mining–which might diminish the overall impact of increased pipeline traffic to the U.S. However, he cautioned that it is not clear at this point whether Canadian efforts alone would be sufficient to resolve concerns about increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers environmental, health, and energy policy and issues. She has reported extensively on climate change, extreme weather disasters, including superstorm Sandy, the 2012-2013 drought, and the massive summer wildfires of the past decade. She also detailed events and policy at last fall’s 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar.
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