President Obama’s looming decision whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists argue, will define his legacy on climate change.
With pressure mounting from the oil and gas industry and congressional Republicans to approve the massive project, which would bring fuel from Canada’s oil sands through the U.S. en route to Gulf Coast refineries, the environmental movement has unleashed its own public pressure on the president.
Thousands of Keystone opponents rallied outside the White House on Sunday, and similar protests — including one scheduled for Presidents Day — are expected in the coming months.
With Mr. Obama no longer concerned with securing re-election, environmentalists are urging him to take drastic steps to fight climate change.
“Keystone is the pure test for the president, the first really simple, pure test where we’ll find out whether he’s capable of leaving some carbon in the ground,” environmental activist Bill McKibben, one of the leading Keystone critics, said at a news conference Monday morning in Washington. “It’ll be pretty darned clear when he makes the decision on Keystone whether or not he’s paying much attention to climate” change issues.
Last year, Mr. Obama delayed a decision on the project, claiming more time was needed to study its potential impact on the environment. TransCanada, the company proposing the project, in the meantime has adjusted its planned route to avoid sensitive areas such as Nebraska’s water aquifer.
Activists such as Mr. McKibben, however, say the route remains problematic.
They also argue that if Mr. Obama approves the pipeline, he will render moot the positive steps taken to fight climate change, such as the implementation of new fuel economy standards and major spending on “green” energy technology.
Though the cancellation of Keystone would limit U.S. access to Canadian oil sands, it would have no impact on climate change if Canada sells the oil to Asian markets instead. However, the environmentalists at Monday’s conference said a U.S. cancellation would boost their movement in Canada, too.
But Mr. Obama is facing equally strong pressure from the American Petroleum Institute and other oil and gas groups, which are lobbying the president to approve the pipeline as part an overall plan to breathe life into the economy. Just hours after Mr. Obama’s election victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney was secured, API President Jack Gerard urged the president to “approve the Keystone pipeline and put thousands of Americans to work immediately.”
Mr. Obama has faced similar calls from the Republican-led House, and those calls now carry more weight in light of projections from the International Energy Agency showing that North America is on course to be energy self-sufficient within a decade.
Environmentalists want the U.S. to break its reliance on foreign oil, but prefer to see that independence come from increased use of wind, solar and other forms of “green power.” They say Mr. Obama’s decision on the pipeline will reverberate far beyond the project itself and will define the American energy landscape for years to come.
The tide, they argue, is turning against fossil fuels and toward renewable sources. That trend makes it likely that a project on the scale of Keystone will be much less palatable to the public by 2016, meaning Mr. Obama may hold the power to kill it once and for all by rejecting it during his second term.
“The window for these sorts of projects … is beginning to close. I’m confident that the president will see that in the coming months,” said Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.