Maybe it is the threat of thousands of protestors circling the White House this weekend. Or maybe he’s sick of being pushed around by Big Oil (ha!). Or maybe he just gets it.
Whatever his motive, President Obama has signaled that he’s gonna man up on the Keystone XL pipeline decision, suggesting that he, and not some political hack in the State Department, will make the final decision about whether or not it is in "the national interest" to permit the construction of a $7 billion pipeline that will bring dirty crude from the Alberta tar sands down to Gulf Coast refineries.
This is a big change. Just a few days ago, White House press secretary Jay Carney suggested that Obama has better things to do than think about whether or not America should allow the construction of what amounts to a giant hypodermic needle for our oil addiction. “This is a decision that will be made by the State Department,” Carney said.
No it ain’t. Obama said. “[The State Department] will be giving me a report over the next several months and, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short-term and long-term? But also, what's best for the health of the American people?" Obama said in a Nebraska TV interview. "Because we don’t want for example aquifers . . . adversely affected. Folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted, and so we want to make sure we’re taking the long view on these issues."
Nebraskans, understandably, are getting riled up about the idea of the proposed pipeline possibly rupturing like a cheap beer can and dumping toxic bitumen into the Ogwalla aquifer, where Nebraskans get more than 80 percent of their water supply. They are also not happy that the pipeline cuts right through the Sand Hills, one of the most fragile and environmentally-sensitive regions of the state. This week, the Nebraska legislature began a special session which anti-pipeline activists hope will result in new land use laws that will force TransCanada, which will build the pipeline to – at the very least – re-route the pipeline around the Sand Hills and the Ogwalla aquifer.
In his interview, Obama made it clear that he has heard the concerns of Nebraskans: “We need to encourage domestic natural gas and oil production. We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.”
Asked if the potential for jobs from the project will affect his decision, Obama replied, "You know it does, but I think folks in Nebraska like all across the country aren’t going to say to themselves, we’ll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health, or if rich land that is so important to agriculture in Nebraska ends up being adversely affected, because those create jobs, and you know, when somebody gets sick that’s a cost that the society has to bear as well. So these are all things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions."
Of course, there are other things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions. Like how burning 830,000 barrels per day of dirty, carbon-intensive tar sands oil will increase the risks of climate change, and why, after vowing during the campaign to “end the tyranny of oil,” Obama would consider signing off on a project that will only increase our dependency on it.
Still, for activists who have long complained about Obama’s failure to engage on climate and energy issues, his latest remarks about the pipeline are good news. If nothing else, it is a sign that he is paying attention. How much attention is another question. For that, they’ll have to wait for his decision on the pipeline permit itself, which is expected to come before the end of the year.