Obama’s Rejection of Keystone XL Is Victory, But That’s Not the Whole Story

‘The black snake, Keystone XL, has been defeated and best believe we will dance to our victory!’

(Photo: tarsandsaction/flickr/cc)

President Obama’s official rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline on Friday was met with grand applause from those who opposed the project and organizers who worked tirelessly, despite long odds, to force the administration’s hand.

However, even as celebrations were enjoyed and an evening rally was scheduled outside the White House, there’s more to this story than the simple rejection of a single pipeline and the ultimate climate legacy of a president who has announced a ‘historic’ decision.

Mass Movements Work

Through years of unprecedented campaigning, ordinary people in the United States and Canada turned what could have been an unremarkable rubber stamping of yet another fossil fuel pipeline into an internationally-watched fight to stop climate change. Since 2011, communities across the United States have staged over 750 direct actions and protests across the country—from mass sit-ins at the White House to a tens-of-thousands-strong march on the National Mall. Farmers, workers, students, Indigenous peoples, and communities on the frontlines of oil refineries and extreme weather put their bodies and relationships on the line—risking arrest, talking to their neighbors, and taking to the streets.

“The black snake, Keystone XL, has been defeated and best believe we will dance to our victory!” —Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network

“We stood our ground and today President Obama stood with us, the pipeline fighters,” said Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska. “Tonight landowners can finally go to sleep knowing their family is safe and sound. Our unlikely alliance showed America that hard work and scientific facts can beat Big Oil’s threat to our land and water.”

Those interested can sign an online Thank You Card to the Movement that will be delivered to every single person who has participated in an action against the Keystone XL pipeline since over the past four years. And people across the United States are holding rejection parties to relish in “one golden well-deserved moment” of celebration.

Canada’s Win, But Trudeau’s “Disappointment”

Even as they celebrated the KXL rejection, Canadian climate activists on Friday seized on President Barack Obama’s statement that freshly sworn-in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who publicly supported the project on the campaign trail—had “expressed his disappointment” about the U.S. State Department’s decision on the pipeline.

“President Obama just sent a message that Prime Minister Trudeau should heed—you can’t be a climate leader while supporting tar sands pipelines.” —Mike Hudema, Greenpeace Canada

Social activist Naomi Klein, for example, tweeted that Trudeau’s reaction was a “BAD way to enter the climate conversation,” because “dirty pipelines are the way of the past.”

The Keystone development came as Canadian environmentalists entered their second of four days of civil disobedience, aimed at convincing Trudeau to freeze tar sands development and commit to a justice-based transition to a clean energy economy.

They took Friday’s news as a chance to double down on their message: “Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline sets a new standard for political climate action,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, Stop it at the Source Campaigner with 350.org Canada. “Justin Trudeau needs to take note that it is time now to listen to the science, to Indigenous Peoples, and to freeze tar sands expansion.”

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“President Obama just sent a message that Prime Minister Trudeau should heed—you can’t be a climate leader while supporting tar sands pipelines,” added (pdf) Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. “The prime minister needs to follow the president’s lead and recognize that science demands and the public wants action on climate change and that can’t be done while expanding the tar sands.”

Economics of Tar Sands

The pipeline rejection comes amid a continuing plummet in crude oil prices, which has forced some oil giants to ditch certain projects and means dwindling enthusiasm for tar sands production, because, as “the world’s most expensive crude,” it just doesn’t make economic sense.

Bloomberg reported the rejection was just a confirmation that “there’s less appetite for expensive Canadian oil sands in an era of $45 crude.”

Yet the falling price of oil has left TransCanada “undeterred,” and as Christine Tezak, an energy market analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, told the New York Times, “How long it takes [to move tar sands crude] is just a result of oil prices. If prices go up, companies will get the oil out.”

A ‘Historic’ Decision? Yes. But Not So Fast on Obama’s Climate Leadership

Obama took the occasion of the Keystone announcement to tout his administration’s environmental track record—but should rejection of this one project be allowed to overshadow his adminstration’s numerous shortcomings when it comes to climate?

“America is leading on climate change by working with other big emitters like China to encourage and announce new commitments to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions,” Obama said, adding that “if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground.”

However, Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline comes only months after he approved offshore drilling in the Arctic, an affront to climate activists and a near-fatal blow to vulnerable communities and marine life that was only avoided when Royal Dutch Shell called off its exploration project in September.

Through his presidency, Obama has repeatedly been criticized for bragging that he has expanded domestic oil and gas production, and critics say his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy proves he simply does not understand the dangers posed by runaway climate change nor the urgency needed for a rapid and just transition to renewables.

As climate experts have pointed out ahead of the United Nations-sponsored COP21 talks in Paris, beginning later this month, the U.S. is far from a leader in climate action and is one of several wealthy nations that is not meeting its potential to reduce greenhouse gases. Though it has historically been the planet’s leading polluter, the U.S. under Obama has continued to evade its financial obligations to help developing countries deal with the immediate impacts of global warming.

Then there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-nation agreement and “corporate power grab nightmare” that Obama has pushed for strongly even as experts warn the deal is an absolute “nightmare” when it comes to environment and, in fact, never even mentions the term “climate change.”

In The Shadow of KXL, A Troubling Network of Pipelines, Oil Trains, and Climate Denial

As Common Dreams has reported extensively, the fight over Keystone XL has not prevented the fossil fuel and pipeline industries on both sides of the U.S./Canada border from aggressively—if quietly—planning, proposing, and building a network of infrastructure projects that collectively “dwarf” KXL in their capacity.

“While the Obama White House Keystone XL decision has been touted by most environmentalists and criticized by Big Oil and its front groups, the truth is much more complex and indeed, dirty.” —Steve Horn, DeSmogBlog

From the “zombie-like” Northern Gateway pipeline that refuses to die in western Canada to the massive eastward proposal known “Energy East,” the major pipeline companies in Canada continue to show their determination in upping the nation’s ability to transport their vast reserves of dirty oil. In addition to the those larger and well-known projects, there are numerous others that continue to threaten communities and the climate across Canada.

In the U.S., a vast network consisting of thousands of miles of new pipelines has been built in recent years. As Steve Horn, a freelance investigative journalist who writes for DeSmogBlog, said on Friday: “While the Obama White House Keystone XL decision has been touted by most environmentalists and criticized by Big Oil and its front groups, the truth is much more complex and indeed, dirty. That’s because for years behind the scenes the Obama Administration has quietly been approving hundreds of miles-long pieces of pipeline owned by pipeline company goliath Enbridge.”

And Daphne Wysham, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy in Washington state, added, “The Pacific Northwest is facing the carbon equivalent of five Keystone XL pipelines in the form of coal, gas, and oil via rail and pipeline.”

Meanwhile, the exponential growth of oil-by-rail has become an area of serious concern for environmentalists and community members who have done their best to squelch the false argument that we must choose between the inevitable destruction of a pipeline disaster or the wreckage of the next firey oil train derailment.

As Stephen Kretzmann, of Oil Change International, told Common Dreams in 2013, “There is no use talking about the best way to transport a product which climate science tells us shouldn’t even be being produced … It’s like debating whether or not menthol or regular cigarettes are worse for you. They both kill, and that’s the point.”


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How Sandy Reveals the GDP’s Twisted Logic

Extreme weather doesn’t boost the economy.

— By John Talberth and Daphne Wysham

As he waded knee-deep in an Atlantic City street, pummeled by Superstorm Sandy’s winds, CNN’s Chief Business Correspondent Ali Velshi declared that it was too early to tell whether Sandy would be a plus or a minus for the U.S. economy.

The authorities are starting to tabulate the stupendous toll in Sandy’s wake — in lost lives, homes, businesses, infrastructure, and water pollution. While they crunch numbers, Velshi’s callous viewpoint is flowing naturally from the twisted logic of using the gross domestic product (GDP) as the economy’s most ubiquitous measure of economic well-being. GDP counts everything we spend money on as a plus. So it follows that the $50 billion (and counting) we’ll spend burying the dead, and replacing lost homes and businesses will make us “better off.”

Take University of Maryland Economist Peter Morici. Back when the cleanup estimates stood at $20 billion, he was already predicting that the multiplier effect of that money being spent on post-Sandy construction would yield a positive economic impact of as much as $36 billion. Morici also predicted an additional $10 billion in benefits from replacing hurricane-damaged structures, and another $12 billion in “delayed spending” that will come in once those countless uprooted people get settled again.

Doesn’t your gut tell you that this arithmetic is suspect? Yet we continue to be seduced by what mainstream economists and the media tell us: Whenever the GDP grows, we’re better off. Well, listen to your gut. The GDP doesn’t reflect our well-being. It doesn’t count the things we value most, such as having enough family time or good health. It merely tabulates the cost of things we buy. The GDP is like a giant calorie counter that tabulates how many calories are in that plate of French fries. It doesn’t tell us if we’re better or worse off as a result of eating those greasy fries or an apple.

In fact, so much of what is counted in the GDP are so-called “defensive expenditures” that merely keep us treading water rather than moving forward or getting back to where we were. Consider the not-so-hypothetical act of cleaning up after the latest extreme weather event. No matter how much cleaning up after the storm costs, much of what we’ve lost is irreplaceable. That’s something GDP entirely overlooks.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gets this point. That’s why he said: “We will rebuild it…But for those of us who are my age, it won’t be the same…because many of the iconic things that made it what it was are now gone and washed into the ocean.”

Fortunately, great headway has been made on new metrics that are far more sophisticated than GDP. One such metric, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) assesses whether our economy is really growing or not. It takes into account spending that doesn’t make us better off, along with growth or contraction of the amount of built, human, social, and natural capital on which all economic activity ultimately depends.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was the first state leader to implement the GPI. Vermont has embraced this yardstick as well, and the roster of state and international initiatives is growing daily.

The contrast between the two metrics is striking. While GDP has grown significantly over the past 25 years — over 60 percent in our own nation — GPI growth studies in multiple countries all show a similar trend: Genuine progress has stagnated as the negative costs of air and water pollution, lost leisure time, commuting, highway accidents, loss of forests and wetlands, climate disasters, unemployment and underemployment are canceling out gains associated with increased economic activity.

In his last annual economic report, President Barack Obama concluded that the nation must move beyond GDP and develop “new indicators of societal well-being.” Ben Bernanke agrees. In August, the Bush-appointed Fed Chairman called for “better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being, the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”

But as long as the GDP remains enshrined as our standard indicator, its twisted logic will continue to affirm that we’re better off with more frequent and deadly disasters like Sandy.


John Talberth, PhD is The Center for Sustainable Economy‘s president and senior economist. Daphne Wysham is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow.
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org