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With climate change, US presidents matter

Posted on 25 February 2015 by John Abraham

Yesterday, President Barack Obama became the first president who has taken a stand to stop climate change.

Actually, that isn’t quite true. President Obama took that stand from his first step into the White House. He has put into place a series of initiatives that actually give us a chance at stopping the most serious consequences of climate change. Much of his actions have gone with little public notice. That changed yesterday with his veto of the ill-proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Vetoing this pipeline, which would increase the rate of extraction of the world’s dirtiest fuels (bitumen and the byproduct petroleum coke), was a no-brainer for anyone concerned about climate change. In fact, it is not possible to be in favor of the Keystone pipeline if you accept the science of climate change. The reason this story is so big isn’t just about carbon dioxide emissions (although that matters). It is more about the strong stand taken by the President against a well-funded campaign to force the pipeline through. It is also important because of the signal it sends to those intent on long term dirty-fuels extraction.

Let’s quickly summarize why the Keystone pipeline was a bad idea to begin with. First, by lowering the production costs, it will increase the rate of extraction of the dirtiest fuels in the world. Second, it will actually raise fuel prices in the United States where much of the tar sands is now sold at a discount. Third, the pipeline will lock in decades of production of dirty fuel even as the costs to deliver wind and solar energy are falling fast and becoming comparable with fossil fuels. Finally, the pipeline would have traversed the United States and would have presented a large spill risk. Why can’t the Canadian government just put the pipeline through their own country? The reason is, their own citizens object.

Back to President Obama. His actions on climate change are numerous and significant. As outlined in his Climate Action Plan, his administration has overseen large investments in renewable energy industries in the U.S. that are creating high-pay and high-skill jobs. He has enacted increases in fuel-efficiency standards which not only reduce emissions but also save money. He has worked on international agreements to reduce hydrofluorocarbons and methane emissions, two potent greenhouse gases.

Even more significantly, he has overseen the plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s new and existing coal plants; the EPA’s Clean Power Plan rewards state-level initiatives to find flexible solutions to reduce their emissions. And also significantly, the President has achieved a huge agreement with China to curb and reduce carbon pollution.

I spoke with Anthony Swift at the National Resources Defense Council about the Clean Power Plan. He said,

The Clean Power Plan and the rejection of Keystone XL go hand in hand in a national policy to reduce our carbon emissions. On one hand, Clean Power Plan is an ambitious proposal to significantly reduce carbon emissions from our existing energy system; while on the other, rejecting tar sands infrastructure projects like Keystone XL ensures that we don’t undermine those reductions by bringing in new, dirtier fuel sources.

What does all this mean, and how is it related to Keystone? It means that Obama’s legacy is now cemented. He has done more on climate change than any predecessors, by a long shot. Importantly, he has trusted the science. When we look back on his presidency, this will be what he is remembered for.

It also cements the legacy of those who voted in favor of Keystone. It was largely along political party lines; however, in the recent House vote, 29 Democrats voted for the pipeline and one Republican voted against it (Justin Amash), although his reasoning had little to do with climate impacts.

I asked Dr. Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress for his thoughts. He responded, 

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. John,

    President Obama vetoed a House bill that would have circumvented the established process for evaluating the KXL application.  He did not veto KXL.  He could still approve it; I don't know how likely that is.  One suggestion I've seen is that he could use it as a negotiating piece with Canada.

    The President did stand in a pipe yard to announce that he had instructed his administration to do everything it could to fast-track the southern end of KXL, and that portion of the pipeline went into operation in January 2014.  The President had called it "vital to the American economy."  Its capacity is 600 000 barrels of oil a day, if memory serves.  (The admistration had no authority over the southern end of the pipeline anyway; it crosses no international border.)

    Under the current administration exports of US coal, much of it from Federal lands, have increased 50%.

    120 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico have been offered for leasing for oil and natural gas (NG) exploration and development.

    The East Coast, which has been shut to oil and NG drilling for decades, has been opened.

    31 000 drilling permits on Federal lands have been approved, including more permits in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011--one year after the Macondo blowout--than since 2007 under President Bush.

    There's more, of course.  The point is that President Obama has been acting realistically--as much as an elected politician can--about energy.  The ongoing emphasis on KXL has served to divert attention and energy from the ongoing increase in the export of crude oil from Canada (much of it from the oil sands).  Where is the value in that?  Last year more Canadian crude was brought into the US than in the year previous, and the story is the same for the year before that and for the year before that--without the northern part of the KXL.  Crude that doesn't move by pipeline moves by rail, as we see in the news, and I don't see that as a plus.

    Here's a thought:  The bitumen from Canada's oil sands won't flow through a pipeline--it's too viscous.  It has to be diluted with lighter oils including condensate, and Canada imports that stuff from...the US.  If you want to slow the development of the oil sands then work to prevent export of US light oils to Canada.  Stopping or delaying KXL won't do it.

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  2. Synapsid is spot on, Obama has done very little to decrease our nations future production of fossil fuels and has laid the ground work for growth. Despite the right-wing mantra, Obama has shown himself at best to be a centrist moderate on environmental issues.

    Opening up drilling off the southeast coast should be a shock for people concerned about AGW and his removal of areas from future leasing in the Arctic were mere postage stamps relative to the vastness of the lease sale areas, besides the fact that they were not thought to be prospective to industry. His administration has scheduled lease sales in the Cook Inlet, Beaufort and Chukchi Sea in Alaska, which is ground zero for climate change.

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  3. Synapsid,

    The portion of XL that was built was indeed to increase the movement of damaging fossil fuels, but it does not need to be extended into Canada where it would further damage things. And Obama had absolutely no influence over that portion beacause it did not cross the US border.

    Obama could do little to stop what the greedy likes of the Tea Party/Republican controlled House wanted. Same goes for coal export.

    The problem is the likes of the Tea Party/Republicans including those who call themselves Democrats but will vote for coal if they are in a region where the damaging activity is a prominent part of the economy.

    A global ban on the ability of greedy pursuers of personal benefit to export any product derived from the oil sands is needed. Many self-interested people will try any way they can get away with to benefit as much as possible, even if they are fully aware of how unsustainable and damaging their pursuits are.

    However, I agree that his apparant support of Arctic Drilling and Ga-Fracking are unacceptable, if he had authority to actually block them, which he probably doesn't.

    The real problem is the American voters who share that attitude in numbers big enough to elect members of the House and Senate in the bizarre shaped Jerrymandered House constituencies created by the likes of the Tea Party Republicans (combined with their deliberate attempts to keep people who would not vote 'with them' from getting to cast a vote).

    What the Americans can do, in addition to stopping any expansion of coal export facilities, is to ban the movement and export of the Petroleum Coke by-product of trying to turn the bitumen into something more readily burnable.

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  4. Obama certainly has a mixed record on global warming, but I don't think there is any question that the title of the piece is entirely accurate... with a GOP president Keystone XL would have been approved years ago, there would be no EPA regulations on coal plants, there would have been no funding for renewables research, there would have been no subsidies for solar and wind development, there would be no tightening of automobile MPG requirements, et cetera.

    Sure, you or I could have done the job better ( :] ), but Obama has done more than any president before him on this issue and vastly more than any GOP president would have.

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  5. Obama has done very little, besides paying lip service, to seriously cut GHG emissions in our country. Comparing him to politicans who are explicitly pro Big Oil does little to change this fact. Even the State Department acknowledged that stopping the KXL would not significantly slow the extraction of oil sands. This article IMO is amounts to a propoganda piece for the Obama administration.

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  6. The stark reality is that irreversible rapid climate change, ocean acidification, depletion of irreplaceable natural resources and irrevocable aging of the vast infrastructure of industrial civilization is occurring. This is an unsustainable process. These discussions are only about policies that can have only a very limited impact on what is acrually happening.

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  7. Elmwood, I'm sorry but that just isn't remotely true. The EPA regulations Obama pushed through essentially outlaw new coal power plants in the United States. That's more than just "paying lip service". As are the high fuel efficiency standards he has enacted. Ditto the deals he has made with China and India (the other two big emitters) to get them agreeing to emissions targets after long refusing to do so.

    As to the State Department report, as you note one of their assumptions was that the tar sands would still be extracted just as quickly without the pipeline... history has now already proven that assumption false. The current low oil prices have made the tar sands much less profitable and decreased extraction significantly. If the pipeline were in place, or even in progress, then the long term profitability of the tar sands would be greater and extraction would not have dropped as much. If oil prices stay around their current level and the pipeline remains unapproved for another five years or so it seems likely to me that the bulk of the tar sands will not be used... another significant achievement in GHG reduction.

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  8. There is always this option to secure energy supplies:

    Which we rather have?

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  9. US Carbon emissions from fossil fuels rose in 2013 and 2014, and are projected to rise in 2015 and 2016 also. Actions speak louder than words and the notion that Obama has undertaken significant action to reduce emissions is bizarre, in the extreme. He has an "all of the above" energy policy and is expanding exploration for oil and gas. No, Obama is no different from any other major world leader.

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  10. I'm so looking forward to the book that President Obama will write after he leaves office.  He has been the most wasted president in the history of the United states.  It is a credit to him how much he has achieved despite having a totally hostile senate and congress against even measures that they previously supported.  One thing I would like to know from him, though, is why he hired exactly the same people from companies like Goldman Sachs, that caused the 2008 near meltdown (only avoided due to quick action by Obama)

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  11. U.S. national politics are mostly driven by elites and corporate interests, this is nothing new. To think it really matters whether Bush, Clinton, or Obama is in charge is laughable: the U.S. has no serious plans of cutting fossil fuel production. There is simply too much money involved to allow care of our planet to get in the way.

    As long as Im president, Mr. Obama said, America is going to be pursuing an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Yes, we'll develop as much oil and gas as we can, in a safe way, but we're also going to develop wind power and solar power and advanced biofuels.
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  12. Elmwood @11, the party, and opinions of the President do make a difference.  Had the US actually been a democratic nation, and hence Al Gore become President (with the majority of the popular vote, and the majority in Florida, counting all votes in which the voting intention of the voter was discernible) the we may have had an Afganistan war, but we would not have had a second Iraq war, and hence would not have had ISIS to contend with.  We also, almost certainly, would have had earlier US action on climate change.  Had John McCain defeated Barack Obama, odds are we would not now have the EPA regulation of CO2 emissions.

    Obama may have not given you everything you want, but that is a far cry from getting everything you don't want - the probable outcome of Republican victories.  If you don't believe me, just look at the Abbot government in Australia (or the Howard government, for that matter). 

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  13. Elmwood,

    The fault is in ourselves, not in the stars - meaning the so-called elites.  We make and empower the elites, and presidents have to work with the congresses people elect.  We have elected congresses that have generally made Obama's efforts on the environment close to impossible.  Considering that, he's done remarkable well when I think back on it.

    Obama has been actively engaged in promoting alternative energies, and has received crushing criticism from the right for his efforts.  He has managed to get progress with China on language regarding GHGs.  He has pushed fuel standards repeatedly - and managed to get them.  He has overseen an increase in EPAs control of GHG's, and that has lead to the new power plant emission rules.  Can't think of a single president with a record to match that on green house gasses.  

    He has pushed development of fossil fuels as well it's true.  It certainly hasn't helped him win many electoral votes on its face, so I don't think that is purely a political calculation, although one could argue he would be even more crippled by charges of being antibusiness if he didn't do so.  I see it more as a backdoor form of stumulus to help the country recover economically (essential if environmental concerns are to have any traction).  There is also a foreign policy argument for energy independence behind it.  The long game (much longer than his presidecny)  is to make sure we are not left out of the alternative energy market when it inevitably starts booming.

    I'm not sure what kind of president you are imagining instead. 

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  14. So, if the tar sands were in North Dakota, would he have vetoed it? No way. Let's not over-do the credit to Obama. This was a political opportunity to take a high-profile stand against one foreign source of CO2, while overseeing increases in domestic sources (see Synapsid comment #1). Meanwhile the illusion that meaningful progress is underway lives on.

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  15. If you want to understand KXL, you had better understand what the corporate perspective is. As always, follow the money.

    The purpose of KXL was bring discounted dilbit to the Gulf Coast refiners for tax-free export of distillates. This exploits the massive crack spread between diesel/distillates and the tarsands "oil". The yield of distillates is as good as for WTI and lighter oil at a fraction of the price

    If you dig into the Valero 10-Q filings and investor presentations from 2010 or so you will see the plan spelled out in simple english.

    The real politics can be distilled down to this, the Kochs through Flint Hill Resources would pocket about 150,000 bbl x $15 a day exporting refined products compared to ~150,000 x $8 a day if the crude was transported by rail. Do the math, and then throw in that Warren Buffet (a known Democrat supporter) through Berkeshire Hathaway benefits if KXL is cancelled because his most recent purchase of BNSF would have increased rail traffic.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Your characteriztion of Warren Buffet's political role on the proposed Keystone XL appears to be incorrect. See: 

    Warren Buffett Backs Keystone XL, Says U.S. 'Thumbing Nose' At Canada by Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press, Huff Post Canada, Mar 2, 2015

  16. What Warren Buffet says in public does not change the fact that the fastest growing component of BNSF business is hauling oil by rail. Admittedly, the volume is still dwarfed by the amount of coal hauled. And as a political play, what does Warren really risk by disagreeing with the President on an already vetoed bill?

    No matter how you slice and dice it, the tax treatment of the refined KXL oil is nothing more than massive corporate welfare to the tune of billions a year with the Kochs benefitting disproportionately.

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