Barack Obama belittled the Keystone XL pipeline debate even as he brought it to a close. The project, which would have delivered heavy, oil-sands crude from Western Canada to the Gulf Coast, "has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse," he said Friday. "It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter."
Mr. President, the cudgelers are just getting started.
The environmental movement is on the march again, perhaps more so than at any time since concerns about acid rain led Congress to pass the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. As political symbols go, Keystone XL was a potent one. It hung over the White House for several years and sparked all-around congressional fury. And, as a bonus for the greens, it came amid an environmentalist feeding frenzy over news that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had started to investigate what ExxonMobil knew about climate change and when it knew it.
So, what now? Author and activist Bill McKibben, the rejuvenated movement's most ardent spokesman, offered a sneak peek at the next targets that his group, 350.org, and like-minded environmental organizations will pursue.
McKibben said there are dozens of pipelines in the U.S. and abroad that together would keep the economy burning carbon for decades. Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to the Pacific, is already facing a changing political climate.
When he's not campaigning to be president, Bernie Sanders still represents Vermont in the Senate. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), and Sanders last week introduced a bill that would strike this item from environmentalists' to-do list. It's not immediately clear how much the Keep It in the Ground Act would cost the U.S. government in forgone revenue on new projects. Overall, the Interior Department's Office of Natural Resources Revenue brings in more than $13 billion in energy and mineral leases.
Global coal use in 2015 is expected to drop more than in any year before; it's already fallen as much as 4.6 percent through September. That doesn't mean it's going to disappear, and some countries are hungrier for coal than ever. That's why India's Adani Enterprises is putting $5 billion into Australian coal. Its Carmichael mine and rail project is already in the works, and under protest, in Queensland, Australia.
Shale oil and gas companies in the U.S. continue to produce, despite low energy prices, but they're staring at federal rules on hydraulic fracturing expected within the next couple of years. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about drought-stricken California, where the industry is demanding more water when there's less to go around.
Obstacles to solar power
With solar module costs down by two-thirds since 2010, "soft costs" loom larger than ever in the U.S. These include legal and other professional services that help project developers comply with local rules. At home, that means changing laws from the local to the federal level. Abroad, countries like India need massive amounts of public and private financing to keep the temptation of fossil fuels at bay. Developing nations will look to the U.S. for financing and investment, and the environmentalists may advocate on their behalf.
The U.S. bans most crude-oil exports. And economics is on the greens' side when it comes to building ports that can ship coal. If they're serious about stopping the trade of all fossil fuels, then they're also up against the U.S. natural gas juggernaut and its new liquefaction and export facilities.
Climate activists are likely to advocate for a wide interpretation of what qualifies.
Shipping oil by rail
High-profile conflagrations have drawn attention to transport safety.
With all these targets to choose from, environmental activists had best remember the Keystone campaign's simplest lesson: Focus on one thing. With a name the kids can remember.