It’s highly unusual for an American envoy to give interviews interpreting and parsing the meaning of a U.S. president’s speech. David Jacobson wouldn’t have done that without clearance from the White House.
Jacobson was explaining Barack Obama’s many references to climate change in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, and the unstated connection to the Keystone XL pipeline project, from Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
This isn’t about the pipeline, it’s about the Alberta oilsands, and greenhouse-gas emissions from bitumen. It’s about environmental activists in the U.S. making Keystone their line in the sand on climate change. Thousands are expected to demonstrate at the White House on Sunday.
Obama has a decision to make — to approve or not to approve Keystone. Jacobson said it would be helpful if Canada could reiterate its commitment to progress on climate change, striking a balance between the economy and the environment.
“I think there are an awful lot of people who are trying to make up their minds and trying to draw the right balance between these two things,” Jacobson said, “who I think will be moved by progress.”
Well, it really only matters what two people think, what Secretary of State John Kerry recommends, and what the president decides. As for commitments, Obama and Stephen Harper launched the Clean Energy Dialogue in 2009, and both countries support the emissions reductions targets in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.
This certainly isn’t about the route of the pipeline, not since TransCanada proposed an alternative route around a Nebraska aquifer. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, who opposed the previous route, has approved the revised one and urged Obama to do the same.
President Obama’s comments in the wake of the Hurricane Sandy disaster raised hopes across the world that the US was finally willing to act on climate change. But America’s refusal to make concessions at the Doha climate talks shows just how little its position has really budged.
Shortly before the US delegation boarded the plane to Qatar at the end of November for the global climate summit, Jennifer Morgan, a climate expert at the World Resources Institute, offered a bit of unsolicited advice. “I think there will be expectations from countries to hear a new voice from the United States,” she said.
But Morgan’s appeal would seem to have gone unheeded. When US President Barack Obama’s climate envoy Todd Stern stood before reporters in Doha for the first time, he did what he has been doing for years: He lowered expectations.
He said he doesn’t believe there is a “different tone” in Washington when it comes to efforts to combat climate change. The US, he then claimed, “has done quite significant things” on the climate front “in the president’s first four years.” As examples, Stern cited improvements in building insulation as well as federal support for promoting renewable energies.
But the message was clear: The US is unwilling to make significant concessions in the final days of this year’s global climate conference.
For environmental activists who have spent the last week and a half at the Doha conference center waiting for a sign of progress, Stern’s comments were only the most recent of many bitter disappointments. They had placed great hopes in the US delegation — hopes that had been awakened by no less that Obama himself.
Climate change played virtually no role at all in the US presidential campaign — until, that is, Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast of the US just days before Election Day. Obama also seemed to recognize the issue’s sudden relevance. Immediately after his re-election, he emphasized more than once the importance of a far-sighted approach to addressing climate change.
Activists around the world interpreted his comments as meaning that the US — the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after China — might finally end its blockade of a climate deal at Doha, and that Washington might finally commit itself to ambituous emission-reduction targets.
They were wrong.
This might seem like a big issue, but if chosen then Susan Rice could just divest the Keystone holdings. The other thing: we really don’t have many other viable options right now options besides the XL line since the competition for all energy resource is heating up along with our climate. In a perfect world we would use clean, carbon free sources, but we can’t realistically do that at present without harming a lot of people here and now.
Embarking on a second term, President Barack Obama faces mounting pressure on a decision he had put off during his re-election campaign: whether to approve the $7 billion proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline between the U.S. and Canada.
On its surface, it’s a choice between the promise of jobs and economic growth and environmental concerns. But it’s also become a proxy for a much broader fight over American energy consumption and climate change, amplified by Superstorm Sandy and the conclusion of an election that was all about the economy.
Environmental activists and oil producers alike are looking to Obama’s decision as a harbinger of what he’ll do on climate and energy in the next four years. Both sides are holding out hope that, freed from the political constraints of re-election, the president will side with them on this and countless related issues down the road.
“The broader climate movement is absolutely looking at this administration’s Keystone XL decision as a really significant decision to signal that dirty fuels are not acceptable in the U.S.,” said Danielle Droitsch, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Despite all the hopes of sun and wind enthusiasts, the real revolution in the energy world has been driven by old-style fossil fuels. Shale gas now dominates global energy policy.
Despite all the hopes of sun and wind enthusiasts, the real revolution in the energy world has been driven by old-style fossil fuels, not by renewables. Shale gas changed power relations in the fossil fuel world, and its impact is going to affect economies and geopolitics. Unlike traditional natural gas, shale gas is not trapped in large reservoirs but in smaller rock formations that have to be penetrated through hydraulic “fracking.” The drilling technology has been refined in the last twenty years and has allowed for extensive gas production in North America.
The price difference between (lower) American oil prices and (higher) European oil prices can be explained by the presence of shale gas in the US. The American WTI blend is some twenty dollars cheaper than the old continent’s Brent blend.
Gas is no direct substitute for oil: it takes time and money to switch energy sources. You might want to get a good run out of your old car before switching to a new (and possibly gas-powered) model with better mileage. Or you might wait before switching your heating system at home from oil to gas.
But the fact that US oil reserves can only cover some 45 more years of domestic need has already impacted the price of oil. The “Energy Information Administration” believes that the US may even become a natural gas exporter by 2021. For the past five or six years, shale gas has been the new mantra of “energy independence” supporters. This is no GOP propaganda either. President Obama clearly included energy independence as a goal when he began his (first?) term in office, although the boom of shale gas is due to policies that had been introduced years before.
The dream of shale gas - which environmental activists would describe as an ecological nightmare instead - has also attracted the interest of other countries. China is thought to have large shale gas reserves, but the problem is the availability of water for fracking and extraction. Estimates put global shale gas reserves around 6600 trillion cubic feet, most of it outside North America and much of it recoverable.
Permitting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline should have been an easy diplomatic and economic decision for U.S. President Barack Obama. The completed project would have shipped more than 700,000 barrels a day of Albertan oil to refineries in the Gulf Coast, generated tens of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers, and met the needs of refineries in Texas that are desperately seeking oil from Canada, a more reliable supplier than Venezuela or countries in the Middle East. The project posed little risk to the landscape it traversed. But instead of acting on economic logic, the Obama administration caved to environmental activists in November 2011, postponing until 2013 the decision on whether to allow the pipeline.
Obama’s choice marked a triumph of campaign posturing over pragmatism and diplomacy, and it brought U.S.-Canadian relations to their lowest point in decades. It was hardly the first time that the administration has fumbled issues with Ottawa. Although relations have been civil, they have rarely been productive. Whether on trade, the environment, or Canada’s shared contribution in places such as Afghanistan, time and again the United States has jilted its northern neighbor. If the pattern of neglect continues, Ottawa will get less interested in cooperating with Washington. Already, Canada has reacted by turning elsewhere — namely, toward Asia — for more reliable economic partners.
Economically, Canada and the United States are joined at the hip. Each country is the other’s number-one trading partner — in 2011, the two-way trade in goods and services totaled $681 billion, more than U.S. trade with Mexico or China — and trade with Canada supports more than eight million U.S. jobs. Yet the Obama administration has recently jeopardized this important relationship. It failed to combat the Buy American provision in Congress’ stimulus bill, which inefficiently excluded Canadian participation in infrastructure spending.
On Tuesday, 50-year-old Francis Grady pleaded not guilty to trying to burn down a Planned Parenthood in Grand Chute, Wis., on April 1. Earlier this month, however, during his first court appearance, Grady sang a different tune, telling the U.S. district judge he did it because “they’re killing babies there.”
An open and shut case of domestic terrorism for the state, it would seem. But curiously Grady is not facing any domestic terrorism charges, once again raising the question of whether the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices apply terrorism laws equally when prosecuting ideologically motivated crimes. While Islamists and animal rights and environmental activists regularly spend years behind bars under terrorism sentences, antiabortion criminals are seldom punished as severely. Grady, it would seem, is the latest antiabortion activist accused of a crime that would be harshly punished if, say, he had done it in the name of Allah or Mother Earth.
According to U.S. code, domestic terrorism occurs when the act is “dangerous to human life” and is “a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” and “appear[s] to be intended … to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” When discussing Grady in a press release, FBI Special Agent in Charge Teresa Carson’s comments suggest Grady’s alleged actions were indeed terrorism: “The FBI will always investigate and bring to justice anyone who resorts to violence as a means to harm, intimidate or prevent the public’s right to access reproductive health services.” The key word there is “intimidate,” which is one of the core characteristics of any terrorist act. Yet Grady has only been charged with arson and “intentionally damaging the property of a facility that provides reproductive health services.”
AFTER months of protests and more than a thousand arrests , environmental activists have succeeded in getting the United States government to indefinitely delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil-laden bitumen from Canada to the Gulf Coast. They are understandably jubilant, but their celebrations are shortsighted. The tactics and arguments that have won the day are ultimately as likely to retard clean energy development as they are to thwart dirty fuels.
The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.
Yet oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy.
The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable. New long distance transmission lines will have to cross multiple states in order to bring that power to the places that need it most. Once again, though, a patchwork of local concerns and inconsistent state regulation is already making the task exceedingly difficult.
And those may be the easy cases. Zero-carbon nuclear power will ultimately require depositories for radioactive waste, but if the intense (and ultimately successful) backlash against the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada is any indication, local pushback is pretty much inevitable. If technologies that capture greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants can be successfully deployed, they’ll still need somewhere to store the carbon dioxide underground. Few people are likely to be enthusiastic about that happening in their backyards.
That leaves environmentalists with a real conundrum. For green groups, the shortest route to blocking fossil fuel development appears to be leveraging local opposition. Many will seek to turn this not only against the Canadian oil sands but against United States oil production and coal exports, too. At the same time, they will find themselves increasingly appealing to the federal government for help in overriding local opposition to wind farms, solar plants, long distance transmission lines and other critical pieces of zero-carbon infrastructure. These two endeavors will conflict.