Beyond the Keystone Pipeline

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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