Beyond the Keystone Pipeline

Why Obama’s alternative-energy agenda may be his biggest legacy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Timur Emek / Getty Images

Imagine if President Obama had promised in his long-awaited climate speech in June to launch the first 45 renewable-electricity projects ever built on federal land, enough to power 4.4 million homes. Imagine that he also pledged to slash the government’s carbon emissions by 15%, jack up vehicle-efficiency standards enough to eliminate an entire year’s worth of U.S. emissions by 2025 and enact appliance-efficiency standards that would save enough electricity to power every single-family home for two years.

Then imagine if he vowed to spark a clean-energy revolution with unprecedented investments in wind, solar and geothermal power; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; green research; and much more.

(MORE: A Bump on the Road to Green)

It would have confirmed the suspicions of many Republicans who have trashed him as an eco-radical. It would have delighted many environmentalists who have trashed him as an AWOL commander in the war on global warming.

It also would have been weird, because Obama already did all those things in his first term. He has probably done more to reduce emissions than anyone else in history, but his critics on the right and the left haven’t noticed.

The climate debate, like so many debates in the Obama era, has been oddly detached from facts. It’s focused on the President’s rhetoric or lack of rhetoric, his partisan or bipartisan tone, his “leadership.” But the thing about Obama, who is known as a words guy, is that he’s really a deeds guy, whether you like his deeds or not. His speeches, about controlling guns or building infrastructure, don’t matter much. They certainly don’t get Congress to pass anything. They just ensure that Republicans who oppose whatever he is for will oppose whatever he has talked about.

Obama’s big climate speech on June 25 was a bit more important—not because it broke his overrated “climate silence” but because it wasn’t about persuasion. It was more a notification of actions taken and actions to come, actions that don’t require help from Congress. So he’ll make buildings, vehicles and federal agencies even more energy-efficient. He’ll add 10 gigawatts of renewables on public land. He’ll do nonlegislative things to support electric vehicles, solar power and other fast-growing green industries that were virtually nonexistent in the U.S. before his 2009 stimulus bill. And he’ll restrict carbon emissions at new and existing power plants, which isn’t a big surprise but is a big deal. Dirty coal plants produce 30% of our emissions, and they’re not going to be able to compete with natural gas and increasingly cheap renewables if they can’t be dirty.

(MORE: Too Good for Government)

The one surprise was Obama’s vow to reject the Keystone XL pipeline if it would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” It all depends on what he means by significantly, so again, I don’t think his words mean much.

But again, his actions will. many of the same eco-scolds who have ignored Obama’s impressive work to curb greenhouse gases have turned Keystone into a with-us-or-against-us test of his climate commitment, even though it’s not nearly as important as regulating coal plants or promoting alternatives to fossil fuels. Meanwhile, most pundits have argued that Obama ought to approve the pipeline to show that he’s reasonable, that he’s not an eco-scold himself. But as I’ve written in these pages, on the pipeline, Obama ought to stand with the eco-scolds.

It’s true that Keystone isn’t the ideal battleground for the fight against global warming. The Canadian tar-sand glop that Big Oil hopes to send to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico might come out of the ground even if the pipeline is rejected. Oil isn’t quite as awful as coal, and its competitors aren’t yet as viable as coal’s. But the Montgomery, Ala., bus system wasn’t the ideal battleground, either; it was just where Rosa Parks decided to fight. Presidents don’t get to choose what activists care about. Presidents just get to choose sides. “After all he’s done on climate, I just can’t imagine that he’d approve this,” says Tom Steyer, a billionaire Obama donor who is bankrolling a crusade against the pipeline. “It would be so disappointing to his supporters. Such a self-inflicted wound.”

Obama can’t force Congress to pass cap and trade. He can’t force China to stop using coal. But there’s no question that the tar-sand oil would significantly increase emissions, and Obama can make it significantly harder to get it out of the earth. That’s something the deeds guy can do by himself. That’s how you show the world you’re at war. And that’s how you win.

MORE(Almost) Everyone Loves Solar

11 comments
RonnieLarson
RonnieLarson

naive article. The crude tanker derailment in Quebec might not  have happened if the Keystone pipeline was in operation. 50 people might still be alive. Human safety should come first, big oil will always find a market for their product, let them do it the safest way(pipeline.)

RGerwe
RGerwe

I don't agree that all of Obama's energy actions and policies make practical environmental sense.  First, if Canadian tar sands oil will eventually be extracted, it should be transported to refineries in the most ecofriendly and energy efficient way. Trucking or freighting the crude petroleum is less efficient than a pipeline.  Second, pushing for extremely costly high speed rail lines in areas where the ridership will be inadequate to justify the expense makes little sense.  Third continuation of mandates and subsidies to convert corn to ethanol and force higher concentrations of ethanol in gas, makes very little sense from an energy and environmental standpoint. Finally we should not rule out nuclear energy, considering that the technology now is vastly improved to make this source of energy safe.

Xjay
Xjay

Obama didn't do those things, "other people made that happen!"

Twoblowout
Twoblowout

The linkage between Obama's legacy & his energy related agenda seems irrelevant.  This country desperately needs leadership - in so many areas, this includes energy.  US citizens need to unite around logic, not political parties.  In this way we each assume a leadership role that helps empower our elected officials.  Rhetoric and posturing cloud the issues and derail practical policies.  We have a terrific opportunity to pilot our country and lead the world to rational departure from hydrocarbons.  A good place to start is with the Department of Energy's recommendations and implement an energy policy. 

kyleash
kyleash

Agree in terms of demand-side policies, and that the climate policy 'announcement' consisted mostly of policies already announced and even implemented. Unfortunately, the Obama team seems to believe promoting carbon pollution supply (coal/oil/gas extraction and exports) is climate neutral somehow. A massive increase in coal exports, LNG exports, fracking, Arctic drilling, ulta-deepwater drilling in the Gulf - these could end up being Obama's real climate legacy. Check out my blog on what may be the 'demand-side-only' climate logic of the White House. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kyle-ash/keystone-crux_b_3518595.html

subirbatabyal
subirbatabyal

PRAISEWORTHY ENDEVOUR OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT. HOPE THE SAME GOOD SENSE WILL PREVAIL AMONG  OTHER HEAD OF STATES OF WORLD TO HAVE A BREATHING SPACE OF ALL LEAVING BEING.

SamSmith
SamSmith

Arizona Public Service Co. is proposing charging customers who install rooftop solar panels $50 to $100 or more a month to cover the cost of maintaining the power grid.  Plus currently those using solar power get credits from adding energy to the power grids.  Now the APAS wans to stop the credits.   THE APS thinks those that use solar power have an advantage over those home owners who don't and thinks that is unfair.  

The Solar Power Industry  have said that generating power close to where it is used saves the cost of building new power plants, as well as high-voltage power lines that would bring that power to the city. That also prevents “line losses” or electricity that is wasted when transmitted long distances.

 The trade group’s study says that for every $1 that APS spends on rooftop solar, it gets about $1.54 back in electricity, avoided infrastructure costs, reduced pollution and other benefits.

 Arizona Republicans are pushing back against renewal, clean energy.  Last year they attack the solar industry in Arizona with higher taxes and fees, making imported solar panels cheaper then what can be purchased in the state or USA.  In essence they are promoting foreign products over USA manufactured products.   The rooftop sector is growing in Arizona. A survey last year by the Solar Foundation trade group found Arizona had the most workers per capita employed by the solar industry, with about 9,800 people working in solar, or one in every 306 workers.  Arizona Republicans are trying to rid the state of this industry.   

Arizona is using several coal power producing electrical plants, and the EPA is trying to stop air pollution, but the state Republicans and Governor is pushing back in trying to eliminate any air pollution.  In fact, they want to mine and drill for oil on state and ever federal lands.  

In the age where the nation and world is trying to clean up air pollution the Republicans are fighting hard to stop that and even trying to create more pollution.   They want the nation back a century. 

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

complete bias. Look at his support of natural gas

TroyOwen
TroyOwen

@RonnieLarson Short sighted, THEY were remiss and careless. Nothing more.

Keystone is a huge red-herring, we get NOTHING from the deal except 100 years of oil spills, of witch 20,000+ gallons have already spilled, and it's not even complete!

If WE got the oil, I may say differently but it's TransCanada and the Saudis with the Dutch that will get all the money from selling the oil to Europe and China. 

We get JACK!

TroyOwen
TroyOwen

@RGerwe

But we don't get the oil. So that point is moot.

Corn to ethanol, Obama didn't do that. Under US law, 40% of the harvest must be used to make biofuel. Congress has to, not Obama, another moot point.

We are building a new Nuclear plant in Atlanta, moot again.

TroyOwen
TroyOwen

@SamSmith  I take it you live there?

I feel for you, I think that is just evil. Damn them.