Two Hopeful Signs The Obama Administration Will Not Approve The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

50-50. Those were the odds you could get in DC for a bet on whether or not Obama would ultimately approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

But this week I think the odds turned against the pipeline, for two reasons:

  1. Obama devoted far more of his second inaugural address to climate change than anybody expected — and framed the issue in stark, moral terms.
  2. The State Department decision won’t come until after March, which means it will almost certainly be made by the new Secretary, climate hawk John Kerry.

Since so much as been written about the first point, let me start with the second. NBC reports:

“We don’t anticipate being able to conclude our own review before the end of the first quarter of this year,” said Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman at the State Department, which had previously said it would make a decision by that deadline.

The review is followed by a public comment period and then a final decision. That timeline means State’s decision will very likely be made by the man Obama nominated to replace Hillary Clinton.

Recall Kerry’s Senate speech this summer slamming the U.S. political discussion as a “conspiracy of silence … a story of disgraceful denial, back-pedaling, and delay that has brought us perilously close to a climate change catastrophe.” He goes on to say:

It is a conspiracy that has not just stalled, but demonized any constructive effort to put America in a position to lead the world on this issue….

Climate change is one of two or three of the most serious threats our country now faces, if not the most serious, and the silence that has enveloped a once robust debate is staggering for its irresponsibility….

I hope we confront the conspiracy of silence head-on and allow complacence to yield to common sense, and narrow interests to bend to the common good. Future generations are counting on us.

Does that sound like a person who is going to start his term as Secretary approving the expansion of one of the dirtiest sources of fossil fuels in the world? (see “New Analysis Shows Simple Math: Keystone XL Pipeline = Tar Sands Expansion = Accelerated Climate Change.”>”) The tar sands is far dirtier than conventional oil:

X-axis is the range of potential resource in billions of barrels. Y-axis is grams of Carbon per MegaJoule of final fuel.  [Graph source: Farrell and Brandt, “Risks of the oil transition,” 2006.]

Approving Keystone wouldn’t exactly be leading the world on this issue — and Kerry has invested more time and effort on climate than any Senator since Al Gore. He is a true climate hawk.

Moreover, Kerry’s outspokenness came before the ultimate decider, President Obama, surprised everyone by abandoning his own climate silence in strong words to the nation that bear repeating:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Does that sound like a person who is going to start his second term as President signing off on what the nation’s top climatologist called “game over” for climate change? (see James Hansen slams Keystone XL Canada-U.S. Pipeline: “Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”)

You can’t frame climate change in terms stronger than our moral obligation to our children and a commandment by God. Let’s remember just what unleashing unconventional oil (and gas) means to our chances of preserving a livable climate:

CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several severe and irreversible warming impacts. Hitting 800 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels like the tar sands — represents the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it as the recent scientific literature makes chillingly clear. [Estimated reserves and potentially recoverable resources are from EIA (2011) and GAC (2011).]

Given that the Keystone decision is ultimately one that Kerry and Obama have to make, I think the smart bet now is that the Obama administration will make the right decision and disapprove the pipeline.

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63 Responses to Two Hopeful Signs The Obama Administration Will Not Approve The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    This should not even be an issue. Transcanada has a terrible safety record, and the route crosses multiple aquifers and rivers. Not to mention our little global warming problem, of course.

    If Obama cancels the pipeline, it will be time for quiet thanks, not celebration. Let’s save that for when he does something difficult.

    Approval would be too horrifying to contemplate, but I’ve met Kerry, believe in his integrity, and don’t believe that he would go for Keystone.

  2. Thanks for cutting through a lot of noisy speculation with these strong points of fact and analysis, Joe!

  3. Leptoquark says:

    I agree that having Kerry in charge of his part of the decision is a hopeful sign, but I just can’t help feeling nervous about his boss, even more so given his inauguration address. What Obama needs to do, and which sadly I don’t expect, is to offer to approve the pipeline in exchange for something meaningful. I would demand a price on carbon from Congress. Or a national feed-in tariff. Or cap-and-dividend. Something, anything, worth the debilitating price it’s going to cost John Kerry to sign off on KXL.

    Unfortunately, what I expect from Obama is an approval dressed-up in pretty words, but doing little to balance the inevitable climate damage from further tar sands development.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Joe, it seems like some of your text is in smaller point size throughout the article (like your last comments at the end for example) than other text…just an FYI.

    The case you lay out is very compelling, maybe we have a realistic chance of this getting canceled, uh what a relief that would be (just from a momentum perspective if nothing else). Surprise us Mr. President, please…..

  5. BillD says:

    Interesting post! During the pre-election period, the Republicans pointed to Keystone as a tremendous source of US jobs. Articles that I read mainly on this site pointed out the job estimates were at least an order-of-magnitude too high. I also read somewhere that the pipeline would increase the cost of gasoline in the Midwest and that most of the refined products would likely be sent out of the US. We need more reporting on these issues to deflect the outrage that conservatives will express is the Keystone is torpedoed.

  6. Joe’s outlook makes sense. I wish my colleagues at TransCanada every personal success in the world, but this pipeline must not be built, and the tar sands (sorry guys, not “oil sands”) must be remain sequestered as they have for eons.

    Keystone XL must be the political turning point, the environmental Thermopylae, the stark symbol that fossil fuel exploitation cannot continue. Otherwise, we all lose.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    Kerry may be good, but I think that Sheldon Whitehouse has put in more time and energy on climate. The Senate climate group meets at his office.

  8. fj says:

    yes, the odds are more favorable and more.than ever he needs the political capital of a savy constituency.

  9. Jak Crow says:

    I’d like to know how transcanada is able to get away with stealing people’s land to build parts of the pipeline when the pipeline hasn’t been approved.

  10. MarkF says:


    Why don’t we admit that it’s not just “our children” that are suffering. It will be worse, much worse for them but…

    The misery suffering and loss from the heating of the planet is happening right now.

  11. That’s correct, most of the tar sands oil would be refined at the underutilized heavy-oil refineries around the Gulf, and exported.

    The tar sands oil is bottled up behind transportation constraints, so sells at about a $40 discount to Cushing crude. If KXL came on, Canadian oil prices would rise, because the producers would no longer have to underbid each other to be one whose supply got to move.

    KXL has nothing to do with North American energy security, and you can tell how patriotic some of its supporters are when they say that the oil will just be shipped overseas by another route if it isn’t approved. KXL is about maximizing the short-term economic opportunity of the tar sands resource, and creating revenue for the pipeline, period.

    The shale gas in the Marcellus and the shale oil in the Bakken is really squeezing TransCanada. Their big mainline from Alberta to Ontario is 3/4 empty. That’s why they’re so keen on KXL. TCPL desperately needs the revenue.

    I’m sorry for that, and wish them all the personal success in the world, but we’re all going to have to take a hit in this transition. We can’t take 5% of the carbon out of the economy annually without serious economic dislocations, at least for a while. They happen to be the unlucky ones who have to take a big one early.

  12. Pumping acidic, abrasive sludge — having the viscosity of peanut butter — over the heartland groundwater sounds like a stupid idea, whatever you think about climate change. Once again we see how stovepiped science at DOE ignores the water-energy nexus, to the benefit of greedy polluters. The pressure needed to push the thick sludge (diluted bitumen, “dilbit”) would make pipeline leaks likely. Endangering the groundwater, just so a few more years of useful life can be squeezed from ancient Gulf Coast refineries, sounds like the ultimate triumph of Wall Street accounting over prudence and the national interest of the US. The people of Alberta, where the bitumen is mined would also prefer to “refine it where you mine it.”

  13. Dan Ives says:

    I hardly need to provide quotes where both Obama and Kerry have made a promise only to act against that promise. It doesn’t matter what they have said, what matters is how they act. And to me, the strongest action either one has taken that goes against Joe’s conclusion is that the southern portion has already been approved and is under construction. I simply can’t see them telling Trans Canada “Too bad, sorry you built that partial pipeline that will now rust in the ground.”

    My problem with Joe’s argument here is its reliance on past statements (“does that sound like a person who would…”). Based on their past actions, I think neither of them are to be trusted.

    But maybe I’m worng, and I’ll be the first to admit it if I am.

  14. Aldous says:

    This decision represents a tipping point for human civilization. Both the acceptance and rejection of the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline have the power to evoke the domino effect.

    The real world context of the domino effect lies in the new report published by Greenpeace, The Point of No Return, which shows that, globally, there are 14 dirty energy mega projects at various points in the approval process. Here’s the link,

    Should construction Keystone XL be permitted, I can easily see nations around the world playing the ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ card. Conversely, I see the same effect happening if construction is prohibited.

  15. Jay Alt says:

    Whitehouse is a great guy, beginning his 2nd term.
    Kerry has deep enviro roots – met wife Teresa at ’92 Rio Earth Summit.

  16. Ken Barrows says:

    When Keystone is approved in a couple of months, can we then advocate for the end of industrial society?

  17. The southern portion will still be useful and economic. They may have to resize if the northern leg doesn’t get approved. The two can be separated.

    The Gov of Neb did approve the new KXL routing through his state yesterday, so that will add to the drama.

  18. Jay Alt says:

    The speculation is interesting and possibly promising.

    But if true, why would EPA honcho Lisa Jackson have quit early to protest the expected approval of Keystone XL?

  19. Joe Romm says:

    Not clear she did. How can you resign in protest — if you don’t actually protest?

  20. Joe Romm says:

    Can’t find such quotes for Kerry on climate.

  21. John McCormick says:

    We heard the President call all of us get involved in America’s future.

    We will suffer our next greatest defeat if we fail to turn around the House and increase number of Democratic senators.

    Is there somebody out there who can tap an influential person to organize the DNC to accomplish our next greatest test?

  22. prokaryotes says:

    Someone probably tries hard to smear her?

    Is The EPA’s Lisa Jackson Trying To Dodge A Federal Probe?

  23. Dan Ives says:

    I wasn’t referring to climate specifically. I was referring to general political promises. I agree with you that Kerry has a good record on climate, but that doesn’t mean he should be trusted. They are all politicians after all.

  24. Stephanie Palmer says:

    I hope they don’t approve it. I heard Boehner yesterday saying that it would mean a million jobs. The man is a disgrace; he lies constantly. Given that the energy companies have said they don’t even know where all of their existing oil lines are, I fail to understand how anyone can possibly expect that the Keystone pipeline will be maintained. This is a bad idea, and the Canadians are thinking the same way.

  25. Dan Ives says:

    I’m pretty sure they took that test between January, 2009 to January, 2010 and failed miserably.

  26. Jay Alt says:

    Maybe Obama was undecided earlier and Jackson misread the situation. But that seems an odd miscalculation and bow-out by her. Maybe the girls sent dad artwork of eucalyptus trees and burning koalas. I can only hope. Family pressures seem to contributed to the motivation of Sen. John Warner’s efforts.

    Rick Piltz addresses the lack of a tradition of principled resignation in Washington. Along the take from Jackson’s longtime friend & confidant on the timing of her notice.

  27. Joan Savage says:

    Kerry’s appointment needs the approval of the 3/5 of the Senate, which can’t happen without GOP participation. The Senate is composed of 51 Democrats, 47 GOP and 2 Independents.

    Presupposing what he might do on Keystone XL could force that topic to be part of hearings. Not a good move. He might get filibustered by the GOP.

    Right now Kerry has credibility and good will from both sides of the aisle.

  28. M Tucker says:

    Are you considering the importance of the tar sands industry to Canada? Are you factoring in how much money tar sands represents to the Canadian government? Just wondering…

    So you are saying that if Obama’s inclination is to approve so as to not renege on a promise to Canada. If Obama did not want to antagonize the Canadian government since they are our largest single nation trading partner, important UN partner, vitally important partner in N American security against terrorism that Obama would defer to the environmental interests of Kerry? I’m pretty sure Kerry will do whatever Obama wants. Obama already knows how important the climate issue is to Kerry just as he did with Chu and Holdren. S of State is Kerry’s chance to really get into American history.

    I think it is more likely he would subvert Kerry just like he was able to do with Holdren and Chu. It will be fun to see what happens though. With all the planning for and money spent on and investment importance of Canadian tar sands this becomes a really big issue. It would definitely be more fun if Obama says no to XL, tells Canada that they will have to settle for the old pipeline as their sole conduit to get that nasty tar sand to the world market, and watch the fireworks from up north, from the Republicans down home, and from all concerned business interests.

    It would be much less fun to see Kerry dodge the subject after Ol’ Obama approves the pipeline and listen to Jay Carney make promises about some vague actions that will take place in some undetermined future.

  29. Leptoquark says:

    You mean like the President?

  30. Leptoquark says:

    Good point. Kerrys’ best strategy would be to remain as non-committal regarding KXL as possible, especially in the face of almost guaranteed GOP prodding. Every minute of talk about conventional foreign policy matters is a minute not spent on KXL.

  31. fj says:

    as mentioned elsewhere:

    Money or your life decisions are not difficult.

  32. Brian R Smith says:

    If the Keystone decision belongs to Kerry (does it really?), then Joe’s odds favoring rejection could be 80/20 or even 100%. The Pres knows where Kerry stands on Keystone; it seems unlikely that his strong inaugural commitment to climate was unrelated to this understanding. It MAY have been in part a result of conferring with Kerry, at least we can hope so.

    If rejection is the outcome, celebration will be brief and quickly beg the question of what’s next. This is poking a very fat stick into the hornets’ nest of House delayers and industry disinformers and they will be ready with all the levers & money in their kit. They will counter attack on (false) economic grounds and need to be repelled with strong, well publicized economic/jobs arguments for transforming to low carbon consumerism. Is there unity of messaging? Is the loose coalition of congressional climate hawks prepared to speak louder than before and frame a path forward?

    If Keystone IS approved, the now even messier insider game will still be central but grassroots efforts become much more critical. Which ever way it goes, the next battles will not be focused through the State Department. Putting a price on carbon, which everyone in the inside game says is impossible in short or medium terms, is the prize. If failure is not an option, a much stronger coalition of legislators, big green, little community green, policy leaders, climate scientists, funders and media support will have to emerge and organize nationally for the long haul. 1st job: massive campaign to educate the public, whatever the cost. (How long have we been acknowledging that this is critical? Why is everyone, with some well-known exceptions, still working on proprietary micro campaigns instead of networking the hell out of common political objectives?)

    Anyway, post-Keystone, hats off to everyone who’s thinking about the power of collaboration and the importance of raising public understanding. Not much time.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:


  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘..lack of a tradition of principled resignation..’ indicates a tradition of lack of principles, surely?

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Have a read of Walter Karp’s ‘Indispensable Enemies’, and see if you think that anything has changed.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The man is a politician. He lies constantly.

  37. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Could you also extend that collaboration towards common global objectives? ME

  38. Sasparilla says:

    TransCanada has separated the pipeline into two parts – the part from Oklahoma (where all the tar sands oil is stacked up) down to the Gulf is being constructed now, since its all inside the U.S. it doesn’t require approval and of course imminent domain can be used to get the land (guessing there) – so that is going forward. It’s the part that crosses the border that is in question at this point.

  39. Anne says:

    From DeSmogBlog: “Muddying the waters on the decision is the fact that The Calgary Herald recently revealed that prospective Secretary of State, John Kerry, has financial investments in two tar sands corporations: Suncor and Cenovus. Kerry has $750,000 invested in Suncor and another $31,000 invested in Cenovus.” i.e., — will he have to recuse himself?

  40. To me that’s the clearest sign that it will be approved. If Obama and Co. don’t plan to approve it, why are they letting southern part of the pipeline go forward — especially over the opposition of American citizens?

  41. From the end of the draft of my syndicated newspaper column, “Your Ecological House,” that will appear in this Sunday’s papers:

    “My own take is that he [Obama] means what he says. He would not have made addressing climate change a central theme of his inaugural address — and promised to air specific proposals in his coming State of the Union address — if he intended to evade the topic.

    “However, he has yet to commit himself to specific actions, and it would be easy enough for him to, say, green light the Keystone pipeline and still claim that he is taking other actions that adequately address climate change. Politics is tricky, and politicians can fool themselves as well as fooling others. The physics of climate change, on the other hand, are non-negotiable and unforgiving. Once Obama and the public truly understand that, appropriate policy will follow.

    “That’s where you [my readers] come in. If you believe that climate change is a threat and want to know what you can do about it, take the opportunity offered by this moment. Join the growing national conversation on climate change, speak out to your friends and neighbors, and help build a critical mass of awareness at our ecological house.”

  42. Brian R Smith says:


  43. JoeSnow says:

    99.9% chance he approves it.

  44. Ed Leaver says:

    Surely, you do not mean to suggest that Canada is a sovereign nation with coastal ports of its own? That sand tar might have other potential routes to global market?? That local opposition to Northern Gateway won’t amount to even a temporary obstacle to international development, cooperation, and bau???

  45. monkey says:

    I hope he approves it. As a Canadian this would be a slap in the face in terms of improving relations if he disallowed it. Under the Bush administration, relations between Canada and the US were somewhat strained and with Obama promising to improve relations with allies, here is a chance to do it. The reality is Americans won’t stop using fossil fuels anytime soon so better to get it from a friendly neighbour to the North than some Middle Eastern dictatorship.

    Also for those pointing out many Canadians are against it, most are from provinces other than Alberta and most don’t realize Canada wouldn’t be doing so well economically if it weren’t for Alberta. The reason other provinces can afford the social programs they have without ridiculously high taxes or out of control deficits is due to the wealth Alberta is forced to transfer to the rest of Canada, which Alberta has because of the oil sands.

  46. Joe Romm says:

    no. But If you’ll give me an even money bet, I’d take it.

  47. Charles Zeller says:
  48. Charles Zeller says:

    expletive deleted

  49. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So, why not secede from Canada, and set up your own hydrocarbon Nirvana? Better find yourself a different planet to transmat to, however, because, if your greed to burn bitumen is realised, your children are going to roast, just like everybody else’s. And when your carbon causes a permanent drought in the US Mid-West, you’d better look out for a few million cranky Yanks heading your way and Constitutionally armed to the teeth.

  50. David B. Benson says:

    Far too optimistic to think it will be turned down, IMHO.

  51. BobbyL says:

    I can see the logic in believing that the chances of the pipeline not getting approved are now greater than 50/50 but that might be too optimistic. First of all, Obama has been pushing to get the southern portion of the pipeline completed which would not make much sense if he was not going to approve the rest of the pipeline. Second, turning down the pipeline could give the Republicans a huge issue for staging a comeback. They could hammer the president for not doing all he can to achieve energy independence. Whatever Obama says in his speeches he remains a very cautious person and is unlikely to take what he considers political risks. He may wind up saying that the US can’t stop the tar sands from being mined anyway because Canada can probably use alternate routes that don’t go through the US so stopping the Keystone XL pipeline from being built is a futile gesture.

  52. Paul Magnus says:

    You dont seem to understand the choices we have to make mate.

  53. Paul Magnus says:

    So I think Obama had Kerry in mind all along.. so that he could try to get some movement on GHG emissions.

    Is that a conspiracy?

  54. Roger says:

    Fastest way to educate the public (and we’re out of time) is for Obama to essentially give a “State of the Climate” address, as part of his SOTU address next month.

    He needs to be blunt about CC being like gravity: It’s not something that won’t hurt you if you don’t “believe” in it. It’s not part of a “liberal agenda.” It’s gonna be life or death for maybe a few billion people, or worst case, the human race.

    Then he needs to have an FDR moment and outline a plan–essentially a “War on Climate Change,” giving him needed additional power to overcome the powerful money-making instincts of the fossil fuel executives and those they pay to help them perpetuate their profits.

    His “War Plan” could include many ways to reduce CO2 emissions and create jobs–all of which have been discussed to death here. (We have a serious national case of “Analysis Paralysis,” when we need to “Rock and Roll!”)

    We are at a turning point for the human race. This is 1000x more important than immigration, guns or whatever. Obama needs to explain that and become the climate leader that will make him 1000x taller than Lincoln in tomorrow’s history books.

    I hope Obama understands this, and has the guts to do what needs to be done. Can CP readers take a minute to help encourage him? Please call the WH Comment Line, 202-456-1111, 9-5 EST, workdays to suggest he act.

    You can also go to, click on the “Contact Us” button in the upper right, and leave a written comment asking Obama to do the above. It takes a minute.

    Best, go to Washington, DC on February 17th for what’s shaping up to be the biggest climate rally in US history. As noted in a related CP post, things are at a point where the Sierra Club, a co-sponsor of the rally, is dropping their ban on civil disobedience!

    That, to me, is bigger news than what Obama said a few days ago, which wasn’t a whole lot different from what he said 4 years ago.

    See you all in DC? To preserve our climate? I certainly hope so!
    Warm regards,

  55. Consider the Connection to:
    Environmental Communication CTC1 [FACTS & ACTION]

  56. Sasparilla says:

    Officially after the pipeline was delayed, TransCanada broke it into two separate projects and the Administration gets no say over whether the Oklahoma to Gulf coast pipeline gets approved (since it doesn’t cross an international border).

  57. Sasparilla says:


  58. Joan Savage says:

    Good prediction…

    John Kerry Appears at Senate Confirmation Hearing

    US Senator John Kerry has said America will do what it must to stop a nuclear Iran, at a friendly hearing for his confirmation as secretary of state.

  59. monkey says:

    I should note the oil sands by Greenpeace were ranked as the fifth worse contributor not the worst. But besides that, as long as the American public demands vehicles that require fossil fuels to operate, they have to get it from somewhere. I would rather it come a friendly country like Canada than a Middle Eastern dictatorship. Expecting the public to give up on fossil fuels or have cut their levels in half is completely unrealistic. Cutting them by 10% is far more realistic and this can be done even if the Keystone pipeline is approved.

  60. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s the proverbial ‘second marriage’- the triumph of hope over experience.

  61. Audran says:

    Take a peak at the Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan which has already spent around $800 million and has not even come close to cleaning it up. Who will risk the cost of cleanup? Who will suffer the results of a spill? We have to wean ourselves from using this precious resource, with so many beneficial uses, for driving my sorry behind around.