X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency

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This post first appeared in TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction.

President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla. Embarking on a second term, Obama faces mounting pressure on a decision he had put off during his re-election campaign: whether to approve the $7 billion proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline between the US and Canada. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the US Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.

The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south. The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.

In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline — on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down — would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.

These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).

But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline. It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It’s a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”

Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide — the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.

On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.

His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. Even though he boasts about marginal US cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane — another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment. At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.

The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often — with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform — he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.

There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.

Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brothers et al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the US via destinations from Michigan to Maine. These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well — indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.

At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.

If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.

But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org.
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  • Anonymous

    I’m not holding my breath that Obama will ever turn himself into the guy we thought we were voting for in 2008. Or, that *I* thought I was voting for in 2008. Apparently there are many thousands of progressives who were never fooled by him like I was. In any case, he is as much in the pocket of oil and gas as any other recent president and most (if not all) of congress. When it comes to doing what’s right for “the people,” we can always count on these guys to think that “the people” means Wall Street, the Koch Brothers, and the oil and gas industries, and pretty much no one else.

  • http://tanglesandwebs.blogspot.com/ Annie Stratton

    I am pondering how to respond to this in an effective way, and not sure I can. While Bill McKibbon has established himself as a voice for those of us concerned about environmental issues, he nonetheless misses the point on a lot of things, and drags his argument off to the side, taking people off track with him.. I have been working on environmental issues as long as he has, if not at such so visibly, and it distresses me when this happens. Now he is a political pundit as well? I’m afraid of what damage that could cause. I pointed out several years ago that America’s coasts were at high risk, and that we needed to stop pretending otherwise and begin PLANNING for it. Yu avoided that and diverted the discussion to the coastal areas of Asia. Ah, now we have experienced our future, Mr. McKibbon, you who could use your influence to help direct local governments to face the reality of it, and develop a rational approach to planning that does not rely on pie-on-the-sky technology. Instead, you are fantasizing yourself an expert in national politics. It’s become the fashion to point the finger at Obama now, and following fashion is something you are very good at. You could do a world of good by keeping your focus on how local actions can make a difference. And Mr. Moyers: you have a critical role in making the kind of analysis that might help us understand how to move our national decision-makers in a direction that can prevent future disasters. You are gifted at it. We need you in that role.

  • Arm of Keaau

    Unfortunately President Obama is now lining himself up for board positions after he leaves office. I hardly expect him to do the right thing and nix the XL project and put a stop to some of the 1%er’s favorite earth-destroying, profit making schemes. Money talks even in destruction. (_: FBI

  • Anonymous

    SD is not doing any drilling , nor is Broadus MT however , Belle Fourche is opening up three new pipeline manufacturing plants, approving two bentonite mines ( bentonite is used for among other things, lubricating oil drill bits), SD has approved new holding tanks for oil, and the Bakken Oil field instead of sending it’s oil directly to the refinery in Billings MT is laying pipeline through Broadus MT to take the Oil to SD ,,,,,,,, I am pretty sure that it is not economically feasible to send it to Ok, instead of Billings MT so the only conclusion can be is that the Bakken Line will hook up with the KXL.

  • Anonymous

    We are selling our soul to the devil. Obama is influenced by his personal investments, so I am not sure what will come first, the good of the nation or the good of his own pocketbook. I hope he does not let us down. I also hope that he brings all troops home in 2014 as promised. He talked a lot about ending the two wars, but seems to just have relocated them. This is not keeping his word.

  • Anonymous

    Obama is an introvert. Introverts always have an alter ego adaptation like a military XO. The challenge is you can be dealing with the XO and not realize so you get the wtong impression of what the real person believes. Obama also detests conflict – as does Harry Reid. That said the real Obama could show up and say no to the northern half of the pipeline which would be smart. People who think a pipeline running east or west from Alberta is going to be really hard since the provinces do not want it and theyhave a lot of say. Railroads will be dicey but less problematic than pipelines. When they cradh or derail you know quickly whereas pipelines (esp. with this operator) can rupture and it is days before the operator notices.

    I think Obama should strongly push the them to just ad refineries right next to the wells and transport higher value-added finished goods (gasoline for example) that can be transported more safely.

    Keep in mind that they have managed to dump raw oil into Cold Lake out of control at that because the pressure & hot water used over pressurized the overlayment causing a fracture that leads right into the lake. Even the Canadians are wising up.

  • Peak Everything

    Well, as long as we keep demanding a lifestyle that is *only* possible through burning through what remains of 500 million years of stored sunlight, as long as there is a positive EROEI, we all will “bend” eventually. And then we’ll learn that we are not destined for the stars, the crown of Creation, or any of the other silly, self-indulgent heroes of our narrow, narcissistic worldview.

    Welcome to the Age of Limits. Typed on my toxic plastic box and submitted at the cost of my and future generations.

  • Mary Johanna

    When I arrived in Hawaii eight years ago while a republican governor was running this state, there was not one Photovoltaic panel to see on any building. Coming from Germany where the city of Freiburg is a prime example of what can be done with alternative energy I did not understand this at all. Now slowly the laws allow for tax breaks and such, people are running to put on Photovoltaic panels, power is very expensive in Hawaii. This endeavor however is now being slowed by the local power-company. There is no sense of urgency within the political community, not here nor in Washington. They just don’t get it, but most Americans don’t get it either because there is such a lack of education. The schools should be teaching environmental issues but they are not, we are barely separating our garbage, and then I believe most of it still goes into the furnace and I can only hope that the filters are truly filtering the toxins as promised by local government. So, as long as we the people continue to send people to Washington who are not truly representing us, then we get what we pay for. Yes, i have buyers remorse with this administration, I was one who believed those emails. Now I am not giving up though, I am looking forward knowing that our young generation will change the wrongs, I know they will. Car makers all over the world are stunned and worried how this young generation is not into cars and buying them, and that is a good sign. Incidentally I spoke to a friend in Tennessee the other day about recycling and she laughed when I asked her are they recycling there. She said: “We are living in Honey Boo Boo Land here, they are not recycling…” Aloha

  • Russell Scott Day

    Planet destruction is going along apace with distractions being the enslavement of the masses. Chattel Slavery as a movie is being shown as before Django Unchained had a happy outcome with “our hero” free. Most of the time, for most slaves it was anonymous death and blinded eyes. Most of the time is time now for Wal Mart’s Wage Slavery done by destruction through collusions with other the other National Slave State, being China.