Thursday, January 19, 2012

Obama Saves the World (for now...)

Yesterday, under the direction of President Obama, the U.S. State Department "denied a permit for the 1,600 mile Keystone XL pipeline." This decision was politically problematic for Obama, because his own supporters are divided over it. Many union members (typically Democrats) favor the pipeline because of the promise of new construction jobs, whereas many environmentalists (also typically Democrats) are opposed to the pipeline because of a number of serious environmental concerns, including the impact on regional water supplies and global warming. Beyond his own Democratic base, Obama, by rejecting the pipeline, opens himself to more criticism about failing to do all he can to spur job growth. To do so in an election year, with the unemployment rate still above 8%, was certainly not his first choice.

The political difficulty of this decision makes it all the more impressive, to me, that Obama made the right decision. I have been fairly critical of many of Obama's moves in his first term (abandoning the public option for health care reform, escalating the war in Afghanistan, extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy), but I am relieved that he was able to do what was right for the planet (and thus for all who live on it) in this instance. Not that I think he did so merely because it was the right thing to do. (Pardon my sentence fragment.) I'm sure the decision was still a calculated political one, influenced by the voices of prominent environmental activists. While I am no environmental scientist myself, I still took the time to read up on the matter, sign a petition, and send an email to the White House to have my little say. Because so many people did the same thing, we were heard.

So why do I think this was the right call, despite the fact that the pipeline would create jobs for an economy that desperately needs them? First of all, I think the pipeline's potential for job creation has been wildly inflated. The Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, claimed that "hundreds of thousands of jobs" would be created. That number is preposterous. Even the oil industry itself, clearly biased, only estimated 20,000 new jobs. A more realistic number, generated by the state department and independent sources, estimates 6,000 jobs. These jobs--which would be regional and temporary in nature--would not turn the economy around, nor would they put a significant dent in the national unemployment rate. Granted, 6,000 new jobs, even temporary jobs, could potentially mean a great deal to 6,000 families that are currently struggling to make ends meet. But at what cost would these jobs be created?

Environmentalists have pointed out that the current plan for the pipeline would threaten a major aquifer in Nebraska, potentially contaminating the water supply for a large midwestern region. But even if the plan was re-routed, it wouldn't solve the most profound environmental threat posed by the pipeline, which is its accelerated contribution to global warming and climate change. While many Americans still live in denial or ignorance regarding climate change, the increase and intensity of extreme weather events are becoming more visible (think of the crazy floods, droughts, and hurricanes in the past few years), and an overwhelming majority of climate scientists continue to speak to the dangers of inaction. At a time when we need to invest whatever public and private money we can toward shifting to renewable sources of energy, we cannot take a huge step backwards by opening our refineries to the extraordinarily dirty oil from the Canadian tar sands. The oil from this region, because of its impurities, requires a more intensive process of refining compared to ordinary crude oil, and thus from production to consumption, it will generate that much more carbon dioxide. James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (where my partner's father used to work), when asked what effect the pipeline would have on climate change, replied, "Essentially, it's game over for the planet."

(Click here to read Bill McKibben's essay in Rolling Stone on the pipeline, from last Fall. My ENG 100 students will be reading a different McKibben essay later this semester.)

So, for now, the planet is saved. Yay, Obama. But certainly TransCanada is going to come up with a new proposal to pitch to the U.S. (or some other nation) to get their dirty oil refined and into the global market. If we don't keep the pressure on our politicians to do the right thing, who knows what will happen.

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