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At Mexican summit, President ties the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to climate concerns

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted February 20, 2014

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Yesterday, the president met with the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, at the “Three Amigos Summit”.   But not all the conversation between the president and prime minister focused on which women’s Olympic ice hockey team would win today.  

In a sidebar conversation, Prime Minister Harper once again pushed the president to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry the world’s dirtiest oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, where it would have access to global markets.  The pipeline would cut through America’s breadbasket, putting water resources, such as the Ogallala aquifer, at risk. 

At past meetings with Harper, the president has stated that the pipeline must go through the process for pipeline approval that has been in place for decades.  But yesterday, in one of his strongest statements to date, he went farther than he has in previous multilateral meetings and tied the pipeline to the broader climate concerns during a question and answer with the press. 

Here is what the Canadian Press (CP) reported from the exchange:

“Stephen and I, during a break after lunch, discussed a shared interest in working together around dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. And this is something that we have to deal with.”

“I said previously that how Keystone impacted greenhouse gas emissions would affect our decision. But frankly, it has to affect all of our decisions at this stage because the science is irrefutable."

"It has the potential of displacing people in ways that we cannot currently fully anticipate and will be extraordinarily costly. So I welcome the work that we can do together with Canada."

CP also reported that the president went on to say "We only have one planet…we do have to point to the future" to influence other big emitters such as China and India, and "have leverage" over them.” And that increasing "severe weather patterns" has "consequences for our businesses, for our jobs, for our families, for safety and security.

CP continued, “Obama said he wants to promote economic growth, but that has to be balanced against eventually transitioning away from the use of fossil fuels.”

The president also pushed back on Harper regarding the approval process.  CP reported, “The president, as expected, noted that the pipeline was at the mercy of an approval process that he acknowledged Harper might find "a little too laborious…But these are how we make these decisions." 

Two weeks ago, a State Department bureau released the final environmental review of the pipeline, coming under attack not only by critics of the pipeline but by some journalists, including this blog in the Scientific American, for how they characterized the review as not finding significant environmental impact (they sided with the oil industry saying tar sands oil development is inevitable). 

But, in spite the fact that the review was written by a consultant widely used by the oil and gas industry, it did for the first time put forward a scenario in which the emissions associated with the increased carbon content of tar sands oil (compared to conventional oil) is indeed significant – 27 million metric tons, or the equivalent to putting 5.7 million more cars on the road.  Over the expected lifetime of the pipeline (50 plus years), this adds up to 1.4 billion metric tons of additional carbon.  Most importantly, the pipeline would open up further development of the tar sands reserve and make meeting goals for climate security impossible.

There was a swift public response after the review was released urging the President and Secretary Kerry not to buy the argument that tar sands extraction is inevitable and find that the pipeline is antithetical to our climate goals, laid out in the Secretary’s speech this past weekend in Jacarta.  

And in a stunning decision, a District Court in Nebraska sided yesterday with ranchers and farmers in overturning a route approval process that the judge called unconstitutional.  This puts a further exclamation point on the fact that this pipeline is "all risk and no reward".   

President Obama's comments indicate that the public has an ally in the president. And Secretary Kerry’s comments last weekend indicate that they have an ally in the secretary. That is critical, because at the end of the day, they are the two who will be called upon to reject this dirty pipeline.  

Photo credit:  CBC

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Nicole kemenyFeb 22 2014 12:01 PM

I am jubilant that the conversation is finally changing. Now we have to start changing the language that contrasts the switch to renewables with economic growth. We need to continue emphasizing that leadership in renewable energy innovation is the best direction for our economic growth.

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