Bill McKibben

Obama puts the final nail in the coffin on Keystone XL

Flanked by Vice President (L) Joe Biden and Secretary of Sate John Kerry (R), Obama rejects the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo credit: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst. 

By Anders Lorenzen

It has been one of the longest environmental battles in US history, a battle that now has been concluded and, which has seen environmentalists claiming victory.

In a timely announcement, earlier this month, Obama announced that he was turning down the controversial infrastructure project Keystone XL. A project that had worried environmentalists ever since it was first proposed seven years ago, as it would transport crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to Texas oil refineries. The announcement was timely because it came just weeks before the crucial COP21 climate summit in Paris, a summit which Obama desperately wants to see succeed.  He also wants the US to be a seen as playing a leading role in securing a climate deal. Some green groups, along with environmentalists, have been claiming that unless Obama rejects Keystone XL he can not be seen as a climate leader.

And for the first time, Obama seemed to hint towards that too, saying if the pipeline were to go ahead it would damage the US’s global leadership on climate change. In a White House address (see above), Obama criticised both sides of the debate for using it as a campaigning tool. He said that the pipeline would not have created the amount of jobs that supporters claimed and, on the other hand, it would not create the climate crisis that opponents claimed.

But perhaps most significantly Obama has now shifted to take climate change impacts into consideration. When he first postponed the decision on Keystone XL, in 2011, his only argument for doing so was that it passed through environmentally sensitive areas – not a word on climate change.

The US President did not hide the fact that Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was disappointed by the decision when he informed him, but said that the two countries would continue to work together on crucial issues such as climate change and energy. And with words that would have partly pleased environmentalists, the President said that at a time when the US is taking a global leadership on tackling climate change it would not make sense to import dirtier fossil fuels from neighboring Canada – especially at a time when the US is producing more crude oil than it is importing and is reducing their reliance on import of oil from unfriendly countries.

On climate change, Obama did not miss the opportunity to sing the praises of his administration’s leadership on this issue. He stated that the US is now a world leader in tackling climate change. Because of that leadership and the agreements they had forged with other large emitters, the countries who are responsible for 90% of the world’s emissions are now forging climate policies.

The environmental activist community is likely to claim that it is due to them that enough pressure was mounted towards the president eventually causing the rejection of the project. When the project was first proposed seven years ago, it was Bill McKibben and the grass-roots organisation he co-founded, 350, who were first to sing the alarm bells. The campaign they created became one of the biggest in US history and created the biggest environmental movement the US had ever seen, supported by a host of other green groups, including the biggest environmental group in the US, the Sierra Club. The project was also opposed by one of the world’s leading climate scientists, James Hansen, and the actor Robert Redford.

While the project has been rejected by Obama, it might not, yet, be completely dead. There is a presidential election next year and if a Republican wins that, expect them to approve the project straight away.

Related news:

Obama moves to veto controversial Keystone XL bill

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