President Obama should pull the plug on the Keystone XL oil pipeline before global climate talks kick off in Paris later this month, Sen. Bernie Sanders said yesterday.
The Vermont independent and 2016 presidential candidate said that by shelving the proposed Alberta-to-Texas conduit, Obama could "send a very strong signal to the entire world that the United States is deadly serious that we are going to combat the international crisis of climate change, that we are going to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy."
Sanders spoke just before the State Department confirmed that it plans to continue a review of the project’s permitting application despite TransCanada Corp.’s request for a delay (E&ENews PM, Nov. 4).
The U.N. conference begins on Nov. 30 and aims to produce a global emissions agreement. The Obama administration has pledged that the United States will cut its greenhouse gas output between 26 and 28 percent by 2025, basing that promise on demand-reduction and green energy policies it has initiated under a slate of existing environmental laws.
But Sanders said yesterday that these efforts must be supplemented by new actions to block access to domestic fossil fuel resources. KXL, which would transport carbon-intensive oil sands crude to refineries in Texas, would be an obvious place to start, he said.
"We need aggressive action in every way, and I would hope very much that President Obama will stand up as soon as possible and say that the Keystone pipeline is a no-brainer," he said, "that you do not extract and transport some of the dirtiest fuel on Earth. End of discussion."
Sanders spoke at the Senate lawn rollout of a bill by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that would end the sale of new fossil fuel leases on public lands and renewal of all nonproducing leases (E&E Daily, Nov. 4).
The senator, whom polls show running second to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, has been against the project since before it was an environmental litmus test. Clinton came out against it this year after stopping just short of endorsing it as secretary of State.
Sanders challenged the front-runner to join him in opposing new leasing on federal lands, too.
"I would hope that Hillary Clinton will join Jeff Merkley and myself on this issue," he said. "If we are serious about climate change, we can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk."
Bill dead in Congress
President Obama has touted an "all of the above" energy agenda throughout most of his administration, often noting that domestic petroleum production expanded on his watch, bringing jobs to economically depressed parts of the country. But market forces and other pressures led Royal Dutch Shell PLC to announce in September that it would abandon plans to produce in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. That decision in turn prompted the Department of the Interior to announce last month that it would suspend its Arctic leasing program.
"I think that is a reason for substantial applause of the Obama administration," said Merkley.
And earlier this week, TransCanada asked the State Department to stay its review of KXL’s permit application — a move climate advocates saw as a maneuver to take the decision out of Obama’s hands. All of the Republican presidential candidates support the pipeline and would be likely to approve it.
The State Department informed the Canadian company yesterday that it would continue the review, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier in the week that a decision would come this year or next.
Merkley said yesterday that he does not expect his bill to go anywhere in the GOP-controlled congress. But he said he hopes that the "keep it in the ground" drumbeat will "reverberate across the planet and create other similar movements across the world."
He and Sanders are joined on the bill by other Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Ben Cardin of Maryland who hopes to lead a Democratic Senate delegation to Paris.
Sanders, meanwhile, plans to float a bill of his own in the coming weeks that aims to protect workers in greenhouse gas-intensive industries from job loss associated with environmental rules.
Some say Keystone won’t go to Paris
The Vermonter isn’t the only one pushing the Obama administration to pony up a new pledge going into the conference.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, said at the same event yesterday that if the administration does not take KXL off the table, it will be a lost opportunity, especially now that the newly elected Liberal government in Canada appears to be less passionate about its approval.
"President Obama should say, ‘This fails my climate test,’" he said, referencing the president’s pledge to make the KXL decision on the basis of whether the project would cause a net increase in atmospheric carbon emissions. "If he did that, he’d be among the first world leaders to say, ‘This is a big project we’re not going to build because of its effect on climate,’ and going into Paris, that would provide some useful credibility."
Jake Schmidt, International Program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that a decision on KXL would add a supply component to the list of demand-side and renewable energy accomplishments U.S. negotiators will take to Paris.
"I think that would show to the world the whole picture of what the U.S. is focused on with climate change," he said.
Actions like the administration’s approval earlier this summer of Shell’s plans to do exploratory drilling in the Arctic have detracted from Obama’s image as a global leader on this issue, he said.
But other observers of the process say the United States need not offer any new pledges ahead of Paris. Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton helped to partially salvage the U.N. talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, six years ago by brokering a commitment by developed nations to provide $100 billion annually in public and private financing to poor countries beginning in 2020. They also brought to the conference a new promise to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
But that pledge has since been eclipsed by the more ambitious 2025 commitment, which is under attack by congressional Republicans who plan to hold votes to scuttle U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan and new power plant rule later this month. Votes on the two Congressional Review Act resolutions are expected the week of Nov. 16 in the Senate, though companion resolutions in the House are likely to take longer and to undergo the usual committee process.
Bill is ‘laughable’
Paul Bledsoe, a former White House adviser under President Clinton who also worked in the Senate, said that rather than debuting fresh pledges, the White House might offer some new details about how the United States will meet its current ones under existing law. Republicans and other skeptics note that the White House has provided few details on what policies it sees adding up to the promised reductions of 26 to 28 percent.
"I think that the focus is going to be on showing that they are setting in motion the mechanisms for reaching existing goals, both domestically and internationally," he said.
Some of the opportunities to do this might occur before Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry head to the French capital. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will be there two weeks before them, appearing at a conference hosted by the International Energy Agency, and he’s likely to talk about the technology advances that will help put the target in reach, Bledsoe said.
Meanwhile, as greens on Capitol Hill and elsewhere weigh the timing of a KXL rejection and strategize to place fossil fuels out of reach, the industry is decrying it as an anti-development stance.
American Petroleum Institute Executive Vice President Louis Finkel called the Merkley bill "extreme." The bill would cost the U.S. Treasury billions in royalty payments and could even reverse some of the market drivers that are decarbonizing the U.S. power grid by crippling the natural gas boom of the last decade, he said.
"Our nation has become a global leader in energy production and at the same time is leading the world in reducing carbon emissions, which are down to 27-year lows, largely due to the affordable and abundant supply of natural gas," Finkel said. "We are also the top industry investing in low- and zero-emission technologies, and spend almost as much as the federal government on these technologies."
Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association called the bill "laughable," especially in light of Senate Democrats’ recent letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in which they admonished the department to do more to ensure that the federal government collects royalties owed.
"They demand the administration keep coal in the ground to address climate change but demand increased royalties on federal coal to boost taxpayer revenues," said Popovich. "Stopping the federal coal program would drive up unemployment further among high-wage workers, block local and federal coffers from receiving about a $1 billion a year in coal revenue and — completing the trifecta — drying up production of a major source of affordable electricity."