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.