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Kolbert writes: "On Tuesday evening, when Senate Democrats rejected efforts to force a vote approving the Keystone XL pipeline, they knew they were just delaying the inevitable."

President Obama has a decision to make on the Keystone Pipeline. (photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Obama has a decision to make on the Keystone Pipeline. (photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Between China and Keystone XL

By Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

20 November 14


n Tuesday evening, when Senate Democrats rejected efforts to force a vote approving the Keystone XL pipeline, they knew they were just delaying the inevitable. The measure was defeated by one vote, and several naysayers will no longer be around come January. The new, Republican-controlled Senate will take up the measure again—“This’ll be an early item on the agenda in the next Congress,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed on Tuesday night—and, the next time around, everyone knows, it will pass. In preparation for this eventuality, White House officials have begun hinting that President Barack Obama might be willing to trade approval of the pipeline for Republican acceptance of one of his favored policies.

If this is indeed the President’s plan, let’s hope he asks the right price. Otherwise, his claim to an environmental legacy will end up being what he traded away. As it happens, the Keystone vote came exactly one week after Obama and China’s President, Xi Jinping, announced that they had agreed on a plan to curb carbon emissions. Under the agreement, China, which is now the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter on an annual basis, would cap its emissions by 2030. For its part, the United States, which is still the world’s greatest emitter on a cumulative basis, would reduce its emissions by twenty-eight per cent by 2025. (This is against a 2005 baseline—U.S. emissions have already fallen about ten per cent since that year, owing, in part, to a substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity production.) Obama called the agreement “historic,” and rightly so. It marks the first time that China has officially acknowledged that its rapidly rising emissions need to stop rising, and it also offers a significantly more ambitious goal for the U.S. than it has previously been willing to commit to. Grist called the deal “a game changer,” while Vox labelled it a “BFD.” Many commentators noted that the odds of getting a meaningful global agreement on climate change at a summit scheduled for next year in Paris—odds that had seemed close to zero— suddenly looked a good deal better. The U.S.-China deal, as a Guardian editorial put it, “transforms the prospects” for the summit.

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster—which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.”

On top of this rather nasty problem, there’s the issue of actually fulfilling the pledges. The Administration claims that reducing emissions by twenty-eight per cent over the next eleven years is “achievable under existing law.” This is a little like someone who’s trying to lose weight saying that his goal is “achievable” on a diet of doughnuts: it may be true in theory, but it’s extremely unlikely. The Administration has put in place several new sets of regulations that, if fully enforced, should have a significant impact on emissions. These include tougher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and the first-ever rules in the U.S. governing carbon emissions from power plants. These new regulations are, once again, much to the Administration’s credit. But they’re not, by themselves, sufficient to cut emissions by the President’s stated goal. And the most far-reaching among them—the power plant rules—are already being challenged in court, though they’ve not even been finalized yet. Meanwhile, U.S. emissions, which had been declining, rose again last year, by 2.9 per cent.

All of which brings us back to Keystone XL. The pipeline—or, really, pipeline extension; so much of the line already exists—is designed to carry oil from the tar-sands deposits in western Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast. The Obama Administration put off making a decision on the pipeline until after the midterm elections, which, of course, his party lost nonetheless. (Tuesday night’s vote represented a last-ditch effort by Louisiana’s Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, to force the President’s hand ahead of a runoff election that she, too, is expected to lose.) Polls have consistently shown Americans in favor of building Keystone XL; even many of the President’s allies have questioned whether the political costs of the delay have been worth the potential environmental benefits. After all, in the grand scheme of things—“grand” here being the hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon that have already been released into the atmosphere and the billions more that will be added this year—the effect of building (or not building) Keystone is apt to be relatively small.

What is important about Keystone XL, though, and the reason that environmental groups have devoted so much energy to opposing it, is that it illustrates a basic point. The U.S.—and the world more generally—cannot reduce carbon emissions while at the same time continuing to exploit every fossil-fuel source that presents itself. The two are simply incompatible: there are way, way more deposits of oil, coal, and natural gas left in the ground than it’s safe to combust. (In fact, much more oil, coal, and natural gas have already been burned than it’s safe to combust.) Tar-sands oil is particularly dirty, and getting at it is particularly destructive; therefore, it’s a particularly good fuel to start with to make this point. (I wrote about the Keystone issue in the magazine last year.)

Even as it has been tightening fuel-efficiency standards and regulating power plants, the Obama Administration has presided over a dramatic expansion of U.S. fuel production, which has included a sixty per cent increase in domestic oil output. The Administration doesn’t deserve all of the blame—or, depending on your outlook, the credit—for this development; many of the relevant leases were issued under the Bush Administration. Still, the result has been an energy policy that’s really no energy policy at all—a one-from-Column-A, one-from-Column-B approach that may have marginally reduced domestic emissions, but probably has helped to increase them abroad. Since 2008, coal exports from the U.S. have nearly doubled. (One of the arguments that senators opposed to Keystone offered on Tuesday night was that most of the oil that would run through it would likely end up being exported to other countries.)

For President Obama to make a real difference on climate change, he is going to have to show that the U.S. is serious about cutting emissions, both at home and abroad. When he’s presented with a Keystone bill, as he almost certainly will be, he could send a signal by vetoing it. If he trades it away, he had better come away with something significant to show for it. Otherwise, even his best efforts could—metaphorically, but also, unfortunately, literally—end up in smoke. your social media marketing partner
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