Obama Asserts He’s The Decider on Keystone XL Pipeline, Cites Risk to Drinking Water, Public Health

The Good News: Killing The Pipeline Could Strand the Tar Sands Oil for Years

The Bad News:  TransCanada Says a Delay in Pipeline Approval to 2012 May Not Kill It

Protesters against the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline demonstrate before the arrival of President Obama on October 25 in San Francisco.

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to pass the buck on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline decision, saying, “This is a decision that will be made by the State Department.”

Today, in an interview with Omaha station KETV (video here), Obama (aka The Decider) walked that back entirely:

The State Department’s in charge of analyzing this, because there’s a pipeline coming in from Canada.  They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months, and, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short term and long term? But also, what’s best for the health of the American people? Because we don’t want for examples aquifers, they’re adversely affected, folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted, and so we want to make sure we’re taking the long view on these issues.

We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production.  We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.

Well, the long view is that dirty fossil fuels, like the tar sands, are not merely an unsustainable source of jobs, but they are essentially fatal to efforts to protect the health and well-being of Americans (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”).

The reporter asked Obama about “the potential for jobs, does that play into the equation at all?”  The President answered:

It does, but I think folks in Nebraska like all across the country aren’t going to say to themselves, “We’ll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health or rich land that’s so important to agriculture in Nebraska are being adversely affected” because those create jobs, and you know when somebody gets sick that’s a cost that the society has to bear as well. So these are all things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions.

This certainly sounds like the president is giving himself rhetorical room to delay the decision (to do a better environmental impact statement or examine alternative routes) or kill the pipeline outright.

Canada’s National Post reports that the “worst-case scenario” of killing the pipeline would be “stranded oil sands — for years”:


The reality is that anything short of a go-ahead in December for Keystone XL would plunge the oil sands sector into disarray until new solutions move forward. The worst-case scenario? Stranded oil sands — for years.

Keystone XL, with a capacity to carry up to 830,000 barrels a day from Alberta to Texas, was due for startup in early 2013. There is no backup on the same scale or timeline.

“Everybody in the industry is thinking about this,” said Bob Dunbar, president of Strategy West Inc., an oil sands consultancy based in Calgary. “Keystone XL is not the only solution, but it is a very elegant solution and it really would have an impact on the industry if it doesn’t proceed in a timely way.”

Even optimists can’t ignore that the pipeline is becoming politically toxic: Anti-Keystone protesters are dogging Mr. Obama everywhere he goes; donors are threatening to pull campaign funding if he approves it; members of the Democratic party are rallying against it; allegations of conflict of interest have strangely emerged; Nebraska has called a special session of the state legislature to discuss whether to block it.

Well, the worst-case scenario for killing the pipeline certainly beats the worst-case scenario for building it!

Fearing Obama may actually do the right thing, or the half right thing, Transcanada suggested today that a delay to 2012 might not be fatal.  As E&E News PM reports:

Executives at Alberta-based TransCanada Corp., which has enlisted the oil and gas industry’s lobbying muscle to help surmount environmentalist push-back against XL, walked a fine line on the fate of the pipeline during a third-quarter earnings call. As they reiterated earlier expectations of a State Department decision on the Canada-to-U.S. oil link by year’s end, the TransCanada officials noted that whether a further delay would scotch the project depends on commitments with shippers.

While there are sunset clauses in those shipping contracts for Keystone XL, TransCanada pipelines President Alex Pourbaix said today, “As long as we receive our approval … we do not expect our shippers to rely on those sunset provisions any time in the near future.”

At the moment, TransCanada executives noted, their customers lack an alternative method to ship Canadian oil sands crude that approaches the scale of the $7 billion XL link. But “if the administration delays the project long enough,” Pourbaix posited, those shippers “are not going to support us anymore.”

The bottom line is that the President’s decision will have a big impact on the tar sands development — delaying rapid exploitation of this climate-destroying fuel, perhaps long enough for this nation Canada, and the entire world to come to its senses on  the risks of unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases.

We need to making large investments in clean energy to start cutting emissions now, not diverting staggering amounts of capital and labor to dirty energy, a move that doesn’t merely waste those assets but actually causes net harm to society and ultimately requires even greater sums of money in the future to (try to) undo the impact of all that pollution.

31 Responses to Obama Asserts He’s The Decider on Keystone XL Pipeline, Cites Risk to Drinking Water, Public Health

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Switch to Renewable Energy, FFS!

  2. David Smith says:

    Yes… I hope everyone who can will show up at the White House next Sunday, 2:00 PM, to pressure the President to do the right thing; Kill The Pipeline. The tide is turning.

  3. PeterW says:

    Joe, Don’t forget about the other proposed tar sands pipeline from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. If approved, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline will carry 525,000 barrels per day through one of the most pristine areas of the world. I believe that’s about the same size as Keystone. The rhetoric in Canada is, “if the Americans don’t want it will sell it to the Chinese”.

    Also don’t be surprised to see the Canadian government chip in to help the poor little oil companies build a few new upgraders and refineries. Stephen Harper loves the oil industry.

    Finally, never trust anything coming from the National Post they’re in the pocket of big oil and the Conservative government.

  4. Artful Dodger says:

    TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said “Make no mistake, that resource is getting developed. It’s the single-greatest driver of the Canadian economy. If the US doesn’t want the oil, then somebody else will”

    Enbridge, is proposing a line that would carry oil sands to Canada’s west coast, making them more accessible to China and other countries.

    It is essential to put a high and rising price on carbon. Only by pricing the externalities will renewables scale up in time to avoid BC* climate change.

    *BC – beyond catastrophic

  5. Theodore says:

    Here’s the problem: “We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production.” Apparently, President Obama is a Republican. When did that happen?

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    I was in San Francisco and about 15 to 20 feet out of the picture.

    If President Obama approves the pipeline, I won’t vote for him next year. I’ll vote for a third party, or something.

    I saw Lawrence O’Donnell in a recorded interview on TV the other night. He basically said that if you want to influence a political party on an issue, “you must, you must” show that you’re capable of not voting for them. He said that, based on his experience as a Democrat in government, Democrat politicians can, and do, easily ignore the demands of people in their base on the view that those people have nowhere else to go in terms of voting. This isn’t a direct quote, but that’s essentially what he said. If you’d like to see it yourself, it was in a special on Ralph Nader, titled ‘An Unreasonable Man’, or something like that.

    That’s it for today. Be Well,


  7. mike Roddy says:

    Sounds good, but let’s see what Obama decides to do. I predict he’ll stall a decision past the election. He has a pattern of playing not to lose, instead of leading to win.

    The pipeline is in trouble if Obama does the right thing. British Columbia and Washington citizens will be blocking both pipelines and ports on their end if it comes to that. It’s through the Great Plains or nothing.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    Canada could export energy from wind, hydro and solar.

  9. Artful Dodger says:

    Mike, don’t underestimate the power of Big Oil to buy influence. Canadians are far less militant than U.S. Citizens, and proportionally more are directly employed in Oil and Gas. Short term thinking wins.

    Only a fundamental shift the the Cost/Supply relationship can bring consumers to switch energy sources. This is the move Big Oil is desperate to delay. And remember, they’re got a $100 Billion war chest to fight renewables.

  10. Sasparilla says:

    This is good news, looks like we’ll at least get a delay through the elections, any delay is a very good thing.

    Considering how it had been teed up to get rubber stamped and steamrolled into existence, by the current administration their partners the associated lobbyists, this is a great tactical victory.

    Unfortunately the guidelines the President mentions for evaluating the pipeline would lead to nothing more than going forward (maybe talking about making sure we’re careful with the pipeline) since climate change impact is not mentioned.

    Keystone 1 and Alberta Clipper tar sands pipelines from Canada to the US (approved by President Obama in summer of 2009) are currently in operation and pumping more oil than the XL extension would. So the tar sands are being developed, but the XL extension would hasten that development significantly.

    From what I understand the XL extension is very desired by the oil industry because they could export the oil from the Gulf (as oil or refined products) and charge Brent Crude oil pricing (what most of the world pays for oil) for it which is about $25 more a barrel than the West Texas Intermediate crude price that the midwest refineries pay for their oil from the Keystone 1 and the Alberta Clipper (that’s almost a 25% bonus in price).

    Lots of money and power want the XL extension and it’s gratifying to see concerned citizens make it at least delayed.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Artful, I may be wrong but it is my understanding that the First Nations are major players in the resistance and they put land before money. But I agree that a price on carbon is essential, ME

  12. Michael T says:

    NBC Nightly News aired a great segment tonight on the link between climate change and more frequent extreme weather events, as well as reporting on the BEST results:

  13. Michael T says:

    Dr Richard Milne – Critical Thinking on Climate Change: separating skepticism from denial

  14. Chris Lock says:

    I want you Americans to say no to Keystone. Perhaps as a loyal Canadian I should say yes to Keystone because it’s good for our economy, but I’m not selfish.

    It seems as if you Americans have more ability to slow or kill the tar sands than we Canadians.

    Please demand your politicians say no to Keystone.

  15. Artful Dodger says:

    A First Nations Band I worked with there received $30 M / yr in royalties to let Shell and Schlumberger explore for natural gas. The trail of money and cocaine followed all the way back to the high rise towers in Calgary.

    Only two Band people made all the decisions. It was a thoroughly corrupt system, and this was over a decade ago. Don’t count on First Nations to turn down the money in the future.

  16. Artful Dodger says:

    They do. Almost all of the power from James Bay is consumed in New York. Labrador also exports its power to New England.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    OK. Very sad, ME

  18. Raul M. says:

    Does not seem that those who have already been impacted by weather disasters can just not worry about it.
    Don’t know that the jet set will always just fly away to an area where the people are just fine.

  19. Raul M. says:

    Years ago with the cold war and the bomb shelter, the question arose about loved ones and their admittance into the bomb shelter if the worst was to happen in D.C.
    I don’t know if that was a publicly answered question, but the logistics still apply with climate disruptions.
    So already the leaders may say to family members just jet set away or just don’t worry about it.
    Seems the bomb shelter may really be a storm shelter; but, do their family members as a group join the others who are less fortunate?

  20. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Raul, your comment reminded me of Rod Sterling’s prescient Twilight Zone episode titled, “The Shelter”. His insight into human nature as it related to a nuclear attack is, IMHO, probably applicable to catastrophic climate change. YMMV… In three parts:

  21. Raul M. says:

    Thank you Dennis,
    I’m glad I’m not the one to have thought of it best.

  22. SecularAnimist says:

    Obama said: “We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production.”


    I thought I voted against the “Drill Baby Drill” candidate in 2008.

  23. lasmog says:

    Its sounds to me like the Compromiser-in-Chief is preparing to delay his decision as long as possible and then probably recommend rerouting the pipeline away from the aquifer. As usual, Obama seems to avoid mentioning climate change at all costs; kind of like Reagan and the AIDS epidemic.

  24. Zentrails says:

    I don’t get what this pipeline will do for us, seeing how our refineries are already at full capacity.

    Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to use the billions of dollars it would take to refine this tar sand crap into something “pipe-able”, not to mention building and maintaining the pipeline by instead using the money to build a new refinery in northern Nebraska to convert this stuff into something useful?

    Use friggin’ trucks to get it to the new refinery. There’s plenty of trucking firms and truck drivers looking for work.

    Surely it would make more sense to build a refinery designed from the ground up to handle “tar sands” rather than build this ill-conceived pipeline to get it to a far away conventional refinery.

  25. Zentrails says:

    It’s completely irrelevant whether “someone else will” buy that oil. We’ll still get enough oil to keep our refineries going full capacity as they are right now.

    It’s complete nonsense to suggest that we need more oil right now. We’ve got plenty of oil. What is driving up the price of oil (and gasoline) is oil futures speculation NOT supply and demand. High oil prices suggest scarcity, but that is simply not the case.

  26. Raul M. says:

    To follow the timeline of prevalent thought though, from the bomb scare it went to unresolved issues and a belief that all will be ok with an AC unit and a car to get one there. By allowing exclusion as a choice deciding factor it does seem like the driver is the only one in the car, per usual.
    Don’t know that would change if storms become the determining factor as to where one would drive.
    The stories of the long exodus of citizens from Fl. Communities as a storm approaches may return in (2?) years.
    People of the Northeast may figure that there are nicer ways than the gas gen to keep the place warm, the lights on at night and food on the table.
    A fireplace ready biochar unit might help for many especially if a chimney could be added to the window opening.
    Just thinking.
    Maybe a small unit could be figured out for truckers so the engines didn’t have to run just to stay warm.

  27. Morris Meyer says:

    My letter responding to the Obama 2012 campaign’s “Commit to volunteer” email from Jeremy Bird.


    I ran the Fairfax County office in VA during the primary with Yohannes Abraham. Ran a staging location for a week in Dayton and helped win the Dayton mayor’s super delegate vote. I worked two counties in North Carolina during the primary and was responsible for one county as an OFA volunteer. I raised all of the money to open up the Centreville, VA OFA office in the general and installed the computers, and got 20 cell phones donated to run our phone bank.

    Throughout this summer I have been organizing an OFA phone bank with the local Democratic committee and have made contributions to the 2012 campaign and attended the OFA statewide organizers training.

    I am not your typical volunteer.

    I am a climate change activist and have been part of Al Gore’s Climate Project. Part of the reason I worked so hard in the 2008 primary was Senator Obama’s assertions that we would address climate change. Politically even though large majorities of the American people want the government to take action on carbon pollution, the administration has played it safe by putting a blunted emphasis on clean energy technology.

    The administration’s record here is amazing. The CAFE improvements, Sec. Chu’s SunShot and ARPA-E program as well as the DOE loans have providing much of the initial investments to bend the cost curves of renewable energy. Without a price on carbon though, we are limited by the government funds available for growing our base of renewable energy.

    This summer our changing climate was brought home to VA. We had two hurricanes, a tropical storm, a once in a thousand years flash flood, a 124 degree heat wave and a tornado in the course of two months. As the President visited town after town that had been wiped off the map we got not one word from the administration that the extreme weather dictating the President’s travel schedule was a product of climate change.

    This brings us to the Keystone XL pipeline that climate scientist Jim Hansen has said will be “game over” for climate if we tap the Alberta tar sands. Politically the administration is trying to be too cute by half by hiring the TransCanada lobbyist as a senior advisor to the 2012 campaign, and using TransCanada’s environmental firm to do the State Department’s environmental impact statement. Quite frankly I expected crap like that from the Bush administration and am heartbroken to read about this sort of thing from the “Change You Can Believe In” crew.

    Instead of getting ready for the 2012 election and putting the hammer down on the GOP craziness we will be encircling the White House on November 6th to try to get a message through to you folks. Our responsibility as citizens of this planet is to hand a thriving environment to our children and grandchildren. I would much rather be registering voters or training volunteers.

    The Keystone XL pipeline decision is a no-brainer if you consider the 2 million barrels of oil that the CAFE standards will displace will far outweigh the 500,000 barrels of dirty tar sands that will be exported (!!!) as it is too dirty for American fuel standards. A decision to build the pipeline runs counter to all the good work that the administration has put forth in clean energy, and will put far more carbon pollution into the atmosphere than the clean energy investments will save.

    We can always build this pipeline if necessary, but because of the awesome work in the last three years we don’t need to.

    Yes you will get pushback from the wingers, but it opens up an issue on the administration’s turf that we’re the folks with our eye on the prize – a clean environment and the energy we need, to contrast with the GOP’s drill everywhere and damn the consequences.

    I will not be committing to 2012 until President Obama renders his decision on Keystone XL. I will guarantee you this though, if Keystone XL is approved I am done with OFA. I will certainly vote for the President in 2012, but my time, energy and donations will go elsewhere.

    In closing I will leave you with President Obama’s defense of the environment from this year’s State of the Union address “I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century. It’s why our food is safe to eat, our water is safe to drink, and our air is safe to breathe.”

    The Keystone XL pipeline will harm our environment for oil that is going to be exported. The decision has gone through a shady environmental review process. This decision is a no-brainer.

    –morris meyer

  28. Chris Winter says:

    I’m reasonably sure that’s the exact title. It harks back to George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

  29. Chris Winter says:

    This is a good letter. I could have used a few facts from it in my comment to whitehouse dot gov, posted below.

  30. Chris Winter says:

    My comments on the White House Web page:
    Mr. President:

    The decision on Keystone XL is one of the most important you will make. It of course involves numerous tradeoffs.

    * Do we need more domestic oil production? Yes we do — absent any near-term energy alternatives.

    * Do we need more domestic deployment of renewable energy sources? Yes we do — for a host of reasons.

    * Do we need to preserve domestic water sources? Yes we do — especially now that drought conditions are becoming more frequent and widespread.

    * Do we need more jobs? Yes we do — and especially ones that cannot be off-shored.

    To me, the way to resolve these practical tradeoffs is clear. Deploying Keystone XL will provide thousands of jobs in construction, and hundreds for operation and maintenance. Deploying more solar, wind and other renewable energy sources will provide hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs, and maintenance creating similar numbers.

    Pipelines leak. This is a given based on past industry performance. No doubt Keystone XL will make use of the latest measures to prevent leaks, but history tells us they won’t be fully effective. Indeed, the existing Keystone pipeline has had its share of spills. Renewable energy sources cannot spill.

    There is a fixed quantity of petroleum. It will not be renewed on any time scale that matters. The better part of wisdom would be to save as much as possible for essential uses like petrochemicals. One way to do that is by conserving energy: promoting energy conservation through federal support for insulating buildings, energy-efficient industrial equipment and processes, biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol for fuels, and smart grids to facilitate the wider use of solar and wind energy and electric vehicles. These too would employ many Americans.

    Saving energy by such measures, and phasing in renewable sources as rapidly as possible, means we may not need new domestic sources of oil. Yes, in the short term this is a remote possibility. But, as former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Yamani said, “When there is a conflict between short-term and long-term priorities, you must always go with the long-term.”

    Finally, burning oil (as with any fossil fuel) is the prime factor causing climate change which threatens the long-term general welfare of the United States (and the rest of the world.)

    The decision won’t be an easy one. But to me these practical tradeoffs point to conservation and renewables. I leave the moral and political considerations for another time.

  31. Jay Alt says:

    Several oil companies have put new refining vessels into existing midwest refineries to prepare them for tar sand oil. Water and air permits were approved last year.