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Keystone XL: Bush's No-Brainer, Obama's Dilemma

Photographer: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Pool via Bloomberg
On Aug. 12, 2008., U.S. President George W. Bush discusses opening up more domestic land to oil and gas exploration, in Washington, D.C.
The following is an excerpt from Keystone and Beyond, a new InsideClimate News e-book on the history of the controversial pipeline. — It was lunchtime at the Hyatt in San Diego, and the oil refinery executives were hanging on every word of former president George W. Bush.

The Keystone XL pipeline question, he told members of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, was a "no-brainer." The United States needed more fuel and more jobs, and the Keystone could provide both. It would haul hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of oil from the almost limitless tar sands reserves of Alberta, Canada, all the way to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Approving the pipeline was in the nation's best interest. Slam dunk.

Bush had stood fast on this kind of reasoning through his two terms in office. To this day he repeats the "no-brainer" line to sympathetic crowds like the oilmen he addressed in San Diego in 2012. His view is shared by a steadfast contingent of lawmakers and their industry allies, as well as by many energy analysts: The United States must break its addiction to shaky foreign sources of oil, so it is in the nation's interest to import more of Canada's tar sands bitumen, just as it is in Canada's interest to relentlessly ramp up its production.

The case for piping in Canada's tar sands oil, the industry and its backers argue, is so compelling that resisting it is futile.

No matter that bitumen is costly to pull from the ground, that it sucks up energy as it is prepared for shipment, that it leaves behind toxic waste or that it is all but impossible to clean up when it spills into waterways. No matter that its carbon footprint is higher than that of almost any other fuel. Canada's tar sands production will double, and then double again, because the world wants this fuel—needs it.

But calling the Keystone decision a no-brainer in this day and age assumes that nothing has changed since the turn of the century, when Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, believed domestic oil and gas production would be shrinking, demand for fuel would be growing, and climate change was an uncertain and distant threat.

Even as Bush was speaking in San Diego, the American energy and climate landscape was changing faster than anyone could have predicted when he took office in 2001.

Thanks to a production technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the United States was extracting so much gas and oil that the once-desperate need for oil from a friendly neighbor was vanishing. Meanwhile, another threat—climate change—was arriving faster than expected.

The vast majority of the world's climate scientists agreed, and with ever more certainty, that the earth is warming and sea levels are rising because of the carbon dioxide released by the combustion of fossil fuels. To ward off the worst effects of global warming, climate leaders say most of the fossil fuels already at hand, including Canada’s tar sands, must be left in the ground.

Building Block or Change in Course?

A year before Bush's San Diego speech, the National Academies of Science issued a report, the product of years of rigorous honing, that recommended that the nation think soberly before building expensive infrastructure projects that lock in decades of emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas most responsible for warming the planet.

"Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risk," the report said.

The Keystone XL—a 36-inch pipeline costing billions of dollars to build, and designed to operate for easily 50 years—is just such a project. For reasons both symbolic and practical, it has become a turning point on the nation's path toward the new realities of energy and climate. It confronts President Barack Obama with a decision that will last far past his time in office.

If Obama approves the pipeline, it will become another building block in the far-reaching oil-sands importing and refining enterprise the Bush team helped to nurture. With the Keystone approved, how could the next project, or the one after that, be denied?

If Obama rejects the Keystone, however, he will signal—in a way no other single order could achieve—that America has changed course and is moving toward an energy future in which fossil fuels no longer hold the only key to the economy. For the first time, the nation’s fuel choices would be measured against a new objective: cutting carbon dioxide emissions in order to head off the ever riskier disruption of the world’s climate.

This book lays out the energy decisions that brought the nation to this crossroads and form the context for the decision that the president, alone, must make.

A pipeline like the Keystone XL that crosses an international border requires a presidential permit before it can proceed. The secretary of state is delegated by the president to carry out a complex review that involves several agencies, a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and multiple opportunities for the public and interest groups to weigh in. But ultimately, it is the president who decides the fundamental question: Is this project in America’s national interest?

The urge to stay the course—to follow business as usual as previous presidents did—is deeply entrenched. A generation of Americans, having lived through the searing experience of fuel shortages during the 1970s, believes that finding ever more reserves of fossil fuels is a manifest destiny. Everywhere we look, at every corner gas station, in every SUV, oil is baked into the American pie. If we go on momentum alone, the Keystone XL pipeline is inevitable.

But too much has changed for the old formulas to be applied as if by rote, memorized in a distant past from some immutable multiplication table. The changing climate is muscling its way into political decisions with ever more force, its arrival heralded by superstorms and megadroughts, by the vanishing Arctic ice cap and glaciers, by the rapid acidification of the oceans and the dangerously higher sea levels. Meanwhile, America’s oil consumption is declining while its domestic production and its reserves in the ground are swelling. When so much has changed, is it safe to make tomorrow's decision based on yesterday's circumstances?

Time to stop waffling

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, U.S. oil production was widely thought to have peaked. About 60 percent of the nation’s oil was coming from foreign countries, many of them politically unstable or even hostile to the United States. Domestic consumption of petroleum was forecast to rise 25 percent by the year 2020. Where on earth would America get the oil it was going to need?

The United States had made little progress in stabilizing its fuel supply since the 1970s, when Arab oil states embargoed sales to the U.S. in retaliation for supporting Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Americans faced the economically debilitating shock of rising prices, rationing and gas lines. From the military, from the markets, and from Main Street, conventional wisdom held that America needed to establish its energy independence. One president after another espoused the creed. None achieved the goal.

But other problems were emerging that would complicate forecasts about America’s energy future and its relationship with fossil fuels.

In 1962, Rachel Carson's landmark classic, “Silent Spring,” helped introduce the general public to the damage that polluting humans, particularly the pesticide industry, were doing to the environment.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson warned that pollution was changing the air not just in a few choked cities, but around the world. "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels," he said in a sweeping message to Congress about the destruction of America’s natural beauty.

In 1972, John Stanley Sawyer, a prominent British meteorologist, predicted in the journal Nature (accurately, as it would turn out) that the planet would warm by about 0.6 degrees Celsius by the year 2000, as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increased 25 percent because of fossil-fuel use. The National Research Council reported in 1977 that warming from carbon dioxide emissions was likely—a clear sign that the problem was becoming a significant concern.

During the 1970s energy crisis, President Jimmy Carter installed solar cells on the White House roof, a symbol of frugality, sacrifice and innovation. His successor, Ronald Reagan, tore them down.

In the early 1980s, a young member of the House, Rep. Al Gore of Tennessee, held hearings on the changing climate, a subject he had been introduced to as a Harvard undergraduate. But few paid attention until, on a sweltering summer day in 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen appeared at a Senate hearing that Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democrat, had called to grab the public’s attention. Hansen announced that he was almost certain that the record setting heat that year was a manifestation not of natural variations in temperatures, but of a phenomenon that was just gaining name recognition: the “greenhouse effect.”

Empty Words

"It's time to stop waffling so much," Hansen told reporters. "The evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here."

It has been called a turning point in the public awareness of the problem.

That year, the United Nations chartered an extraordinary assembly of scientists from around the world, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, to review and assess the growing body of science so governments could figure out what to do.

On the campaign trail that summer, candidate George Herbert Walker Bush promised to take action.

''Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the 'White House effect,'" he said. "As President, I intend to do something about it. We will talk about global warming, and we will act."

These turned out to be empty words.

Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's first official "climate advocate," stumbled upon a copy of talking points the new administration had prepared for its cabinet members. He handed it over to Phil Shabecoff of The New York Times, who latched early onto the budding climate story.

"Not beneficial to discuss whether there is or is not warming," the paper said. "In the eyes of the public we will lose this debate.''

''Don't get into an advocacy position of the merits of various policy proposals,'' it went on. ''Don't use specific numbers i.e., degrees, dollars, rates, etc. ''

President Bush reacted to the emerging science of the greenhouse effect in much the way his son would later–cautiously, in a way that emphasized uncertainty.

The U.S. posture toward climate change and other international environmental issues would be "aggressive and thoughtful,” but maintaining free markets would be the first principle and economic growth would be the foremost goal, he said in a 1990 speech to the IPCC.

The IPCC's first assessment was unambiguous. The climate is warming, mainly due to man-made pollution, it said bluntly. The scientists did not yet have all the details, but they were confident that unless carbon dioxide emissions were reduced, the problem would worsen in the century to come.

Goaded by green Democrats, Bush traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the landmark 1992 "Earth Summit." Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, attended. So did Al Gore, by then a senator and the Democratic candidate for vice president.

The conference was a turning point in the effort to gain worldwide agreement to take on climate change, and Bush promised the U.S. would lead the way. When it came to confronting the emerging threat of climate change "we are the leaders; we're not the followers," he said.

Republished with the permission of InsideClimate News, a non-profit news organization that covers energy and climate change issues in law, policy and public opinion. The e-book Keystone and Beyond is available for free download for a limited time here.

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