This past week, President Barack Obama’s administration announced it would reject the proposal to construct the Keystone XL pipeline, ending a long-running debate. Ahead of the world’s most important climate talks in years, it is an agenda-setting move.
The pipeline would have further connected Canadian crude oil to American refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. It is worth noting that TransCanada, the oil company involved, has already built a pipeline connecting the two. Keystone XL would have just allowed for more oil to be transported more quickly.
But without turning this into a petroleum engineering lecture I am (definitely) not qualified to give, the nature of the pipeline was a seemingly dangerous one. For one, the Athabasca oil sands, from which Keystone XL oil would come, involve a water, chemical and energy-intensive process of extraction. Second, the new pipeline would further increase the risk of oil spills, particularly around the Ogallala Aquifer, from which 30 percent of America’s water for irrigation comes.
The decision is more than an environmental one, however. It’s a lot easier for a president to make a decision like this when unemployment is at five percent as it is now compared to, say, eight percent or 10 percent. The pipeline would obviously create and sustain (mostly temporary) jobs. Perhaps not the tens of thousands some advocated, but jobs nevertheless. For the President to announce his rejection of the proposal just days after one of the best jobs reports in recent memory is no coincidence. Think of the perception Americans would have had if Obama were to have rejected the pipeline when unemployment was higher.
Obama campaigned and won an election on an “all of the above” energy strategy involving investment in renewables and fossil fuels, but he governed over one of the largest oil booms in history. America is now importing almost a quarter less oil now than it did when Obama came into office, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Now, however, it seems the Obama administration is (finally) moving on climate change. Last month, the Department of the Interior announced a freeze of drilling lease rights in the Arctic. Again, the motivation was probably not entirely noble and had more to do with low oil prices and a lack of discoveries (Shell, for instance, ceased its Arctic drilling), in addition of course to the environmental dangers of offshore drilling.
Canada itself will probably end up moving the crude oil elsewhere, perhaps to its Pacific Coast and to China. Almost all of Canadian petroleum either stays domestic or heads to the United States. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed disappointment, I doubt Canada will have trouble finding a way to sell its oil.
In about a month, United Nations members will meet in Paris for the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 climate change talks, and President Obama will be in attendance. The White House has already started to shape the tone. The preisdent’s recent moves will only increase momentum heading into what may be the most important talks since COP 3, the 1997 negotiations that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol. By rejecting the Keystone XL extension, he prioritized the environment, and not lobbyists, oil companies or some amount of jobs. It’s this type of decisiveness and commitment that the world will need come Paris.