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:
- Obama devoted far more of his second inaugural address to climate change than anybody expected — and framed the issue in stark, moral terms.
- 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.