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Some people don’t like to be wrong. I love to be wrong. That’s because I’m pretty pessimistic about modern politics and even more so about the future. I don’t want to be right about any of that. So when I am wrong, it’s usually a good thing.

This certainly holds for Obama rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline. This surprises me less than it would have 2 years ago, but it surprises me nonetheless. Now, critics of the anti-Keystone protesters say that in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal. And that may well be true. Obama suggested the same thing in his remarks about it today. But it doesn’t matter much. You never know what is going to be a touchstone for protest. As I’ve said before, “you never know” is pretty much my theory of change. For the climate movement, it was Keystone. Certainly the U.S. was not going to benefit nearly enough from this economically to buck this protest movement in any reasonable way, especially a Democratic president. I’m glad Obama saw this and decided to kill it. This may well not mean that the filthy oil from one of the planet’s worst environmental countries (really for as progressive as Canada can be on many issues, it is utterly abysmal on environmental issues as anyone who follows logging, mining, and fossil fuels knows) won’t get to market. But at least the U.S. won’t be culpable.

What does this say about Obama’s legacy on the environment? I am pretty cautious of judging legacies during a presidency (except for George W. Bush, who was so obviously disastrous) but I think this more or less gets at it:

He’s often ignored the more difficult issue: the supply. He’s even enabled it. Obama approved Shell’s plans to explore for more oil off Alaska’s coast in the Arctic this summer, proposed opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling, and leased public lands for coal mining. Keystone is a small part of the supply equation.

As Obama weighed his decision on Keystone, TransCanada and the rest of the industry have pursued alternatives, including expanding shipments by rail and tanker, filing an application for other large pipelines like Energy East in Canada, and even considering reapplying for a Keystone permit in the next administration.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement has shifted attention to other supply issues. Beyond blocking other proposed pipeline projects from Enbridge and TransCanada, they have targeted Arctic drilling, congressional efforts to lift the U.S. oil export ban, and the administration’s efforts to lease public lands for coal mining.

From a scientific standpoint, Keystone is no more important than any of these other issues. But it was always more important for its symbolism.

Refusing Keystone because of its climate impact makes it more believable that we’ve reached a turning point on tolerating unlimited extraction and development of fossil fuels.

By taking a stand against Keystone, Obama has bolstered his weakest spot on climate change. Environmentalists are hoping that this new outlook doesn’t begin and end with the Keystone decision.

Obama has overall been a decent environmental president, with not too much attention paid to public lands and wildlife issues that have made a lot of environmentalists frustrated with the president and more attention paid to climate change with Keystone hanging over his head. This helps with the latter side of that coin. It’s a good thing. I’m glad I’m wrong about it. And I hope the climate community and unite around a new target or goal to keep up the pressure that Bill McKibben’s 350.org did so much to generate.

…..Shakezula’s comment here reminded me of a point I should I have made originally. There’s a strong element on the so-called “respectable left,” one that even often appears around here, that protest is worthless, that’s protesters are basically a bunch of hippies performing a role, and that real change occurs through “serious” policy channels and that protesters should instead be doing “real” work like registering voters and working for, presumably, Democratic candidates. What happened with Keystone should be Exhibit A in why that whole formulation is deeply misguided. The reality is that there are many ways to influence a system. The left needs to work both within and outside the political establishment. Protest can absolutely work. Without McKibben and the 350.org movement, the Keystone pipeline would already have been approved. Obama is responding directly to a protest movement on this issue. Those who disdain protest need to remember this going forward.

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  • Ahenobarbus

    I thought the pipeline was going to be used for grain storage.

    • Ktotwf

      The irony of ironies is that we will use the Pyramids for grain storage once civilization collapses due to Global Warming

      • Warren Terra

        Apparently one of the largest pyramids has a volume of 3 million cubic meters, all but 300 cubic meters of which is solid stone. It might do for gold storage in a pinch, but not grain.

    • Captain Obvious

      I would have supported it if it ran from Quebec to Florida and carried genuine maple syrup.

      • Warren Terra

        Yet another elaborate plot to rob the Canadian Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve.

      • Linnaeus

        I wouldn’t have – we have domestic sources of maple syrup we can tap here for greater maple syrup independence.

    • Lee Rudolph

      That’s ridiculous. Copulin transport!

  • DrDick

    Definitely an unexpected gift. I am liking Obama much better when he no longer has any fucks left to give.

    • Ktotwf

      It is true. The fact is that the US is much better off for having him as President over the last 8 years. There is really no debate about that. ”Hope and Change” worked out just fine, considering the limitations.

      Unfortunately we will probably need to wait another hundred years for single payer. And by then we will all be cyborgs so who knows how relevant healthcare will even be!

    • ChrisTS

      You know, I love the “who gives a f****” Obama. I sort of wish we had seen him sooner,but I also doubt that that was genuinely possible outside the fantasy Green Lantern view.

      • matt w

        It’s interesting to contrast Obama’s last two years of “Fine, if you’re going to call me a Kenyan socialist dictator, I’m just going to issue a whole bunch of progressive executive orders” with GW Bush’s last two years “If you don’t like me I’m just going to sulk in a corner.” Which was also a massive improvement over his first six years, though for different reasons. (And, well, maybe not when it led to him James Buchananing the financial crisis.)

    • joe from Lowell

      This decision is both wholly predictable and entirely consistent with Obama’s record from the beginning.

      There are certainly areas – policing reform comes to mind – where Obama’s executive actions have been dramatically better since the last elections. This isn’t one of them. However much you like him on environmental policy today is how much you should have been liking him all along.

  • The Temporary Name

    TransCanada had just asked for some sort of delay to the process, and the tar sands economy is in a slump, so it’s relatively easy to say no now. And it’s less of a diplomatic headache given that Harper is gone, who was a total prick.

    Two days in, and Justin Trudeau is – gasp! – allowing government scientists to speak.


    • Warren Terra

      TransCanada had just asked for some sort of delay to the process

      TransCanada had just asked for a delay that would mean the next President decides – meaning either a Republican, or a Democrat who is not yet out of fncks to give.

      • The Temporary Name

        Yes. The delay, though, also involved land it was having trouble getting access to: a score for pipeline opponents.

      • ThrottleJockey

        You don’t think that if the next President is a Repub that he won’t resurrect TransCanada’s permit from the Oval Office trash can faster than Jesus raised Lazarus? Please they’re chomping at the bit for that. You do remember GWB ostentaiously pulling us out of Kyoto, right?

        • Bruce Vail

          Yes, this is right. If Republicans win 2016 we may see a resurrection of the ANWR debate again too.

        • The Temporary Name

          It’s a huge project requiring all sorts of investment and political buy-in. It’s much harder to restart than to forbid.

  • CrunchyFrog

    A good decision.

    Obama has overall been a decent environmental president

    I agree with this, with two provisos. First, he’s gotten better after each election. While never as bad as a Republican would have been his first term – highlighted by his greenlighting long-blocked Gulf of Mexico drilling shortly before the BP disaster – was not a whole lot better than GWB’s last two-year stint. Second, for all the good decisions it can be argued that the situation demanded a hell of a lot more – something that will be judged decades from now.

    • Michael Cain

      He’s had an awful lot of help, even before he got to office, from the big blue states and the federal courts. The conservative meme is “Obama’s war on coal.” But it was the big blue states who won Massachusetts v. EPA in the Supreme Court that settled that CO2 was a pollutant that must be regulated. No matter who was President after that, they were going to have to negotiate higher CAFE numbers with the automakers. Once that was done, there was no choice about regulating fixed sources. CJ Roberts put together a patchwork opinion that limited the EPA to regulating power plants when he could have easily blocked them entirely. The big blue states had to go to court to force the Obama EPA to issue a rule on coal ash.

      My description is that the big blue states, with the assistance of the Supreme Court, are waging a very successful war on coal. Obama is assisting them, but certainly isn’t leading them.

      If the Republicans win the White House next year and hold both chambers of Congress, I expect that one way or another, one of the first things they will do is add the sentence “For the purposes of this Act, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant” to the CAA.

      • joe from Lowell

        CO2 regulations, while awesome, have played roughy zero role in the decline of the coal-fired power industry.

        The Lisa Jackson EPA’s aggressive regulation of fixed sources predated the CAFE regulations, rather than following them.

        Good for the blue states, because state lawsuits from forward-leaning states have long been a key part of the process. And yes, especially northeastern states have been aggressive at defending themselves from the air pollution coming from places like Ohio.

        But reading that as the Obama administration merely following gets the story wrong.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I think Obama has been positively great on Green issues. Its not as if green issues exist in vacuum. For a large part of this country, energy expenses are among the most costly and the most burdensome. When have you met a working class person who thought gas was too cheap? So I think he struck a pretty optimal balance. And this entirely overlooks a 3rd issue–independence from Mideast energy–that is probably a bigger threat to humanity, if you absorb the impact of the 2 Iraq Wars, than either a price of gas that’s too high, or even global warming.

      • wjts

        There is absolutely no way that the threat (such as it is) from continuing to use Mideast oil is even remotely comparable to the threat from global warming.

    • joe from Lowell

      This reading of the situation misses the lead-time of policy changes.

      The growth of EPA regulations throughout his term, for example, isn’t about Obama’s policy getting better. All of the rules we threw parties for in years 5 and 6 were started in years 1 and 2. The completion of the process isn’t a shift in his policy but a continuity.

      Also, the carbon/energy policy in the ARRA alone makes the first and second years of Obama’s term the best of his presidency from the perspective of environmental policy. We should never lose sight of the the importance of that Democratic Congress.

  • Anon21

    This is no good, Erik. I came here to taunt you for being wrong about this two years ago, and now here you are admitting that you were wrong and taking all the sting out of any taunts. You’ve got to give your critics a fair chance to gloat!

    • PhoenixRising

      Ironically, I logged in just to say that I love it when Loomis is wrong.

      Because his predictions tend to be so damn gloomy I want to spend my days distilling whiskey which I will trade for freshly slaughtered meats and chopped, seasoned cordwood after the apocalypse.

    • joe from Lowell

      The protests changed his mind and He would have approved it when I wrote that, sort of undercut the message.

  • Yes, I did a double-take when I saw the front page today. The howls from the usual rejects should be amusing as well.

    Now, critics of the anti-Keystone protesters say that in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal.

    This is a common statement made in regards to every progressive protest I’m aware of.

    But I wouldn’t call it a criticism. More like passive-aggressive carping from miserable people. (See also – “Your protests are disruptiiiiiiiiiive and are making people hostile to your caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaause.”)

    • Ken

      I suggest the President propose a compromise to the usual rejects: A transportation bill to fix some of the infrastructure that we already actually have and need – bridges will be a good choice – with the conversion of two such bridges to tolls.

      That will give us all the jobs Keystone would have; a few thousand construction jobs for a few years, and a dozen or so permanent toll-worker jobs instead of the similar number of permanent pipeline jobs.

      (Plus we won’t have to eminent-domain a path through the middle of the country.)

      • I like the idea of infrastructure repair and think it would generate more, better paying and long term jobs. In an ideal world things are repaired, inspected, and repaired again on a regular basis.

        I have a few problems with tolls, one being not everyone who drives to/from work would be able to afford them.

        And it’s no longer a given that tolls create toll jobs. The Inter-County Connector in my neck of the woods collects tolls with E-Z Pass technology and cameras (for people who don’t have E-Z pass).

        • Ken

          Good point. I just put in the thirty or so toll-bridge jobs for the comparison with the long-term job creation of the pipeline. You’re quite right, simply maintaining our infrastructure would easily give two or three orders of magnitude more jobs.

  • JL

    The reality is that there are many ways to influence a system. The left needs to work both within and outside the political establishment.

    Quoted for truth. It should be both, not either/or.

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  • joe from Lowell

    I am no less surprised about this decision than I would have been two years ago, because the actions Obama has taken over the last two years represent a continuity with his record in the beginning of his term. Also, because he and his party have been taking political hits for his opposition for years; if Obama was going to approve it, he would have saved everyone a lot of grief. I find the debate on this point baffling, and have all along.

    And that is precisely why it might have been a good idea to lay off speculation like

    Without McKibben and the 350.org movement, the Keystone pipeline would already have been approved. Obama is responding directly to a protest movement on this issue.

    I don’t find this to be a terribly plausible reading of the situation. But what would I know; I also saw this coming years ago.

    • You are responding with the grace we’ve all come to expect.

      • joe from Lowell

        The next time you provide a reason to believe the protests are responsible for Obama’s decision will be the first.

        And that seems a great deal more worth the readership’s consideration than whether I’m being a good fella.

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