The congressionally imposed 60-day deadline for a permit decision gave President Obama, under pressure from both sides, a different way to get what he had sought earlier: postponing a final decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election.  Environmentalists will cheer this decision, TransCanada will re-apply for a permit, and we’ll see what happens in 2013.

Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson reported in The Washington Post January 18 (“Obama administration rejects Keystone XL pipeline”):

Obama said that the Feb. 21 deadline, set by Congress as part of the two-month payroll tax cut extension, made it impossible to adequately review the project proposed by TransCanada. But he left the door open to the possibility that a new proposal might pass regulatory muster.

“This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people,” the president said in a statement. …

While the current Keystone XL permit application is dead, the pipeline might not be. The administration will allow TransCanada to reapply for a permit after it develops an alternate route around the Nebraska Sandhills, a sensitive habitat.

TransCanada’s chief executive, Russ Girling, issued a statement saying that the company will reapply and that he expects that “a new application would be processed in an expedited manner” so the pipeline could be carrying crude by late 2014. “While we are disappointed, TransCanada remains fully committed to the construction of Keystone XL,” he said. …

And is this oil industry insider spinning, or does he have a good feel for the game Obama is playing:

Stephen Brown, vice president of federal government affairs for the oil refiner Tesoro, said he was not surprised. “Today’s decision will be a fairly easy one for the White House to make,” he wrote in an e-mail. “No one who was planning on voting against the president would have been won over simply because of the approval of Keystone.” Engler said, “I just think the timing was such that the politics got in the way of the decision and that it will be approved pretty quickly once the elections are out of the way.”

Nevertheless, consider the state of play several months ago, when the Keystone XL issue was relatively invisible outside the oil industry and the government permitting process, except for a few green activists and concerned landowners in the pipeline’s prospective path.  Contrast this with the situation we have today, with the issue nationalized, appropriately politicized, and salient in the media.  This creates opportunities for the climate movement to advance this and related issues.

I can’t agree with our friend Bill McKibben that this was a particularly brave decision by Obama.  Granted, he faced, and will continue to face, powerful pressure from the oil industry and its paid-for elected officials.  They’re going to fight him one way or another.  But Obama finally seems to be learning that rolling over for right-wing pressure is a losing political game.  Obama’s decision was a pretty much obvious one, I’d say, and politically advantageous for him now regardless of how this issue plays out down the road.

I do agree with Bill that the evolution of the Keystone XL battle offers a validation of sorts for the politics of ‘get out from behind your computers sometimes and get out into the streets to demonstrate and confront (with some creative attention to the political theater of the actions).’   McKibben in the Daily Beast January 18 (“Obama’s Denial of Keystone Permit Was a Welcome Win Against Big Oil”):

Rejecting the transcontinental oil pipeline, the president turned the conventional wisdom on its head, but the real victors were the idealistic protestors.

… The victory is of course a tribute to people who set aside their natural cynicism about the possibility of change and instead went to jail in record numbers, wrote public comments in record numbers, surrounded the White House shoulder to shoulder five deep. They managed to bring reality to the forefront for once, and that reality—the leaky pipeline, the oil destined for export, the carbon overload from the tar sands—managed to trump, for now, the bottomless pockets of the fossil fuel industry.

But the question remains: will Obama and the State Department decide on the permit basically in terms of its structural safety, i.e., will it leak?  Obama hasn’t (yet) framed the issue in terms of climate change – the need, in order to avoid likely disastrous impacts of global climatic disruption, for society to decide to leave unconventional fossil fuel reserves in the ground and move ahead with the sustainable energy transformation.  That is really the bottom line.  Obama still needs to be pushed to answer to Jim Hansen and talk about climate science as it applies to decisions about fossil fuel development.

In our formal comments to the State Department on the Keystone XL pipeline permit decision, Climate Science Watch included this:

There are multiple reasons to oppose granting a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline – and one overriding ‘national interest’ criterion. …

All of these points, and others, have been made well by opponents of granting a permit for the pipeline. But one argument, which should be considered central to a ‘national interest’ determination, has perhaps not been given the prominence it calls for: that large-scale development and production from the tar sands would make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to stabilize atmospheric carbon at a level that would potentially avert global climatic disruption and the associated disastrous impacts on society and the habitability of the planet. Dr. Hansen has said:

 “The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2). Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels including tar sands are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate.

“Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.”

Before he was inaugurated, President Obama once said to reporters that he believed what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that climate change is “a matter of urgency and of national security” — that “the time for denial and delay are over.” The President knows we are on a dangerous path.

The stress of climatic disruption will be added to societies that are already very stressed – in the United States and worldwide. And people who are already the most vulnerable – and who are least responsible for causing the problem, are likely to be hardest hit by the impacts.

If there were no threat of climatic disruption, then transforming the energy system would be a less urgent challenge. The promise and the advantages of clean energy would still be there – but the potential consequences of climatic disruption are what lends great urgency.

The President must know this. But he has appeared reluctant to give the issue real prominence in his public statements. Apparently he has not yet found it politically convenient to speak truthfully about this and to keep this message in front of the public. With the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, he can begin to rectify this shortcoming in his presidential leadership.

The overriding national interest consideration in this case is the same as the global interest of humanity: that the U.S. Government should not be complicit in, but rather seek to forestall, development of the tar sands. Given this, it is shocking that the State Department appears to be considering the proposed pipeline permit in terms – e.g., will the pipeline leak? – that treat the profound problem of global climatic disruption as though it were irrelevant to practical decisions about the development and use of fossil energy sources.

Earlier posts:
Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream” [with video].  Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz joined climate scientist James Hansen and 141 other individuals on August 29 in getting arrested at a sit-in demonstration at the White House, calling on President Obama to block construction the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline demonstrators surround White House – pipeline permit decision blocked until 2013 [with video],  On November 6 Climate Science Watch joined with thousands of other demonstrators at the White House calling on President Obama to block a permit for the proposed Canada-to-Texas pipeline. Climate scientist James Hansen and others spoke at a rally in Lafayette Square before demonstrators formed a human chain around the White House. Days later, Obama, apparently feeling some pressure from people whose support has been too-long taken for granted, decided to delay a decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election.