Tar sands expansion conflicts with official US policy objective to address climate change: another reason to reject Keystone XL

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When President Obama came into office he promised US leadership on global warming policy.  Before Obama was inaugurated he said: “My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change…” Will that promised new chapter lead to a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring tar sands from Canada through the US.  While focus will still be aimed at the fatally flawed “environmental impact assessment” conducted by the State Department, President Obama will now have to make another decision: whether the pipeline is in the national interest of the US (the so-called “national interest determination”).  While this determination is a bit vague, it is clear that this pipeline is not in the national interest since it undercuts a major US policy objective of addressing climate change.  (And there are other reasons why this is clearly not in the US national interest). 

Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands extraction and upgrading is 3-4 times more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil.  The emissions created from producing the tar sands oil piped through Keystone XL will increase carbon pollution by 27 million metric tons above emissions from the equivalent amount of conventional oil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  At a time when we shouldn’t be investing in carbon polluting infrastructure, this pipeline would be the “gateway drug” to even more tar sands expansion.  The tar sands industry has proposed expanding tar sands production to as much as 7.6 million barrels per day, as shown in the figure below.

Tar Sands Expansion.PNGUsing the same calculations as EPA, the emissions created from producing this much tar sands compared with the equivalent amount of conventional oil would be 228 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

So by rejecting the Keystone XL President Obama can help to significantly reduce global warming pollution, which is a stated major policy priority of the Obama Administration.   

Addressing Climate Change is a Major US Domestic and Foreign Policy Priority 

Leading US foreign policy officials – President Obama and Secretary Clinton – and official US foreign policy documents make it clear that addressing climate change is a major foreign policy priority.  Here are the details: 

President Obama has articulated the need to address climate change at major foreign policy venues.  In receiving the Nobel Prize President Obama stressed the national security and foreign policy implications of failing to address climate change:

“There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement -- all of which will fuel more conflict for decades.  For this reason, it is not merely scientists and environmental activists who call for swift and forceful action -- it's military leaders in my own country and others who understand our common security hangs in the balance [emphasis added].

In another high-level foreign policy speech before 100 heads of government, President Obama stressed:

“Our generation's response to this challenge [climate change] will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it -- boldly, swiftly, and together -- we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe…

The security and stability of each nation and all peoples -- our prosperity, our health, our safety -- are in jeopardy. And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.

…And we have put climate at the top of our diplomatic agenda when it comes to our relationships with countries from China to Brazil; India to Mexico; Africa to Europe” [emphasis added].

Secretary Hilary Clinton has stressed that of the priorities facing the US addressing climate change is a major priority.  In several prominent speeches, Secretary Clinton has stressed the importance to US interests of addressing global warming.

In announcing the appointment of Todd Stern as Special Climate Envy, Secretary Clinton said:

“As should be evident by now, the President and I believe that American leadership is essential to meeting the challenges of the 21st century. And chief among those is the complex, urgent, and global threat of climate change.

And let’s be clear. A world in crisis goes well beyond the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink. It is at once an environmental, economic, energy and national security issue with grave implications for America’s and the world’s future [emphasis added].

Speaking before the seventeen largest emitters Secretary Clinton stated:

“First, the science is unambiguous and the logic that flows from it is inescapable. Climate change is a clear and present danger to our world that demands immediate attention. Second, the United States is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time, both at home and abroad. The President and his entire Administration are committed to addressing this issue and we will act [emphasis added].  

US National Security Strategy mentions climate change 23 times (no mentions of tar sands, etc).  In May 2010, President Obama signed a new US National Security Strategy.  The White House website says that this document: “…lays out a strategic approach for advancing American interests…”  The strategy clearly articulates the foreign policy priority of addressing climate change when it stresses:

“Climate change…threaten the security of regions and the health and safety of the American people.

Our diplomacy and development capabilities must help…combat climate change…” [emphasis added].

Expansion of tar sands, bitumen, oil shale, or any other variation wasn’t mentioned anywhere in this document which outlines the Administrations national security objectives.

Continued expansion of tar sands will make it impossible for Canada to meet its international climate commitments, according to official projections from the Canadian Environment Ministry.  Countries taking action at home and living up to their international climate commitments is the main strategy of the Obama Administration international climate policy.  As Special Envoy Todd Stern stressed: “it makes a great deal of difference that all countries have confidence that others are following through on their undertakings.”  By rejecting the Keystone XL the Obama Administration could single-handedly make the most important decision to aid Canada in meeting its international global warming commitment.  Failing to reject the pipeline would be like admitting that the US is alright with Canada reneging on its commitments.   

So what is it President Obama and Secretary Clinton: is addressing climate change really a major foreign policy objective of this Administration or were those just words.  Rejecting this pipeline would send an important signal that your words have meaning.  As you know, international diplomacy is the most powerful when your words match your deeds.

* Photo by aclintonb.

** Updated 11/3/2011 with the figure of tar sands expansion which was accidentally left off.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Managing Director, International program

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