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Lessons from Obama's Keystone Cave-In

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President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Yesterday, President Obama stood in front of a pile of big green pipes – yes, green pipes – in Cushing, Oklahoma, and promised to expedite approval of federal permits for the southern leg of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.  It was a crushing defeat for enviros and clean energy activists, many of whom have waged a long and pitched political battle over the fate of the pipeline (you can read about it here and here).

A few morning-after thoughts:

1.  "All of the above" = "Drill, Baby, Drill"
Obama talks a good game about developing "green" energy sources, but here he is, doubling down on oil. Although this speech was clearly political theater, I expected him to appease anti-pipeline activists by using his visit to Cushing – the belly of the fossil-fuel beast – to remind Big Oil that not only has he promised not only to yank away $4 billion in subsidies, but that oil is, as he said the other day, "the fuel of the past."  Ha!  Instead, Obama offered up a speech that would make Sarah Palin proud, reminding us how, over the last three years, "I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states.  We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore."  And he crowed: "We are drilling all over the place now."  And as for pipelines, he bragged that "we’ve added enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the earth."  Climate blogger Joe Romm rightly called the address "Obama's worst speech ever."

2.  If Obama gets re-elected, the northern half of the Keystone pipeline is going to get built. 
He did not say this explicitly in his speech yesterday, but the political code is perfectly clear. Obama is essentially endorsing tar sands oil production, with all the environmental wreckage it causes, as well as dooming the Midwest to more pipeline spills (PDF).  It also means that investment dollars will now flow to boosting the production capacity of the tar sands operations, which in turn will pump up the industry's political clout even more.  In effect, there’s no stopping the tar sands now.  The dirty bitumen is gonna get dug up and refined and piped down to the Gulf and slimed across the world. 

3.  Enviros have no muscle. 
When the State Department last year decided to block the pipeline at least temporarily, enviros cheered. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it "a victory of truth over misinformation," and writer/activist Bill McKibben said "it isn’t just the right call, it’s the brave call."  But that bravery wilted quickly in the face of high gas prices and Republican attacks, lame as they have been (the pipeline will have no measureable impact on gas prices in America today, tomorrow, or ever).  The unmistakable subtext of this speech was: Tough shit, Frances and Bill and all your earnest followers.  Are you really gonna vote for Romney in November?  

4.  Obama is still wimping out on climate change. 
Duh.  But people had hopes.  During the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about slowing the rising seas and putting a price on carbon pollution.  After the election, he hired John Holdren as science advisor and Steven Chu to run to the Department of Energy, both of whom understand the dangers of climate change as well as anyone. Didn’t help. Today, despite the fact that global carbon pollution is accelerating and extreme weather is becoming the norm (it’s a sad but revealing irony that, as Brad Johnson points out, Cushing has been ground zero for climate disasters in the U.S.), Obama won’t even mention the words "climate" or "global warming," much less demonstrate any leadership on the single most dangerous threat that civilization has ever faced.  Instead, he has shifted the conversation to energy independence.  That may be a worthy goal, but if it’s pursued without regard to the risks of climate change, it will only increase the danger of future catastrophes. 

In any crass political calculation, drilling for oil will always win more votes than putting a price on carbon.  But if I recall what I was taught in fifth-grade American government class, we elect presidents to do more than crass political calculations.  Obama wants to be thought of as the president who freed us from foreign oil.  But if he doesn’t show some political courage, he may well be remembered as the president who cooked the planet.

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