Obama Challenged to Stand Up to Big Oil Lobby

UXBRIDGE, Canada - The United States' biggest environmental groups put aside their differences last week to make an urgent intervention on the country's addiction to oil. The first step on the long road to recovery, they say, is to stop the proposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that will "mainline" the world's dirtiest oil from northern Canada into the U.S. heartland.

"This (Keystone) is a terrible project," they wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama, citing dangers to the climate, the risks of disastrous spills and leaks, and the economic damage that will come from continued dependence on fossil fuel.

Oil from the Keystone XL will dump an estimated 150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually into the atmosphere - more than most countries. Scientists warn that approval of the project will further fuel the extreme weather that has already resulted in over one billion dollars in damages recorded this year in nine separate extreme weather events in the U.S.

And that doesn't include the estimated 20 to 45 billion dollars in costs from Hurricane Irene last weekend, mainly due to extensive flooding.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels do not cause hurricanes, tornados or droughts, but they do trap additional heat and water vapour that fuels those events, climate scientists have proven time and time again.

Asked about the impacts of adding another 150 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, German climate scientist Malte Meinshausen, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told IPS that it will warm the planet for hundreds of years and lead to higher sea levels and "more pronounced droughts and floods".

The green groups asked the president to be strong and take the first step by denying permission to build the 2,400-kilometre, seven- billion-dollar pipeline, which would pump 700,000 to 800,000 barrels a day of bitumen oil from Canada's tar sands in northern Alberta.

Thousands of people have brought the same message to President Obama's front door at the White House in the past 10 days. More than 500 have been arrested for protesting on the White House sidewalk, urging him to take the first step in breaking the country's addiction to fossil fuels by standing up to the Big Oil lobby.

This is an unusual circumstance, where the president gets to make the "go, no go" decision all by himself. No need to deal with a dysfunctional Congress. And environmentalists argue that for a president whose popularity has plummeted, it would seem to be a public relations coup to take a stand and finally act on his promises to fight climate change.

No easy decision

The problem for President Obama is that some of the world's most powerful oil companies have a problem. Big Oil has made enormous investments in Canada's tar sands, the second largest oil reserves on the planet. They need to ship their "product" - and lots of it - to the lucrative U.S. market for processing, and very likely export it to Europe or even China.

TransCanada Pipelines is eager to build the Keystone XL to transport its "product" across the border. The company will charge hundreds of millions a year for the service, but it's worth it because Big Oil will use the pipeline to make an estimated 40 to 60 billion dollars a year, or maybe more, depending on how high they can jack up the street price of gasoline.

Big Oil has worked hard to ensure the full cooperation and assistance of the government of Canada and the province of Alberta, where the tar sands are located. For a piece of the action, the governments of Canada and Alberta have been slow or failed to enforce their own environmental laws.

Canada has completely ignored its international obligations to reduce fossil fuel use. Both governments have used public funds to furiously lobby their counterparts in the U.S. to follow suit.

It was hardly surprising then to see a letter by Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, published Monday in the New York Times using arguments promoting the Keystone project that appear to be lifted from TransCanada's press releases.

The U.S. and Canada clearly have an oil addiction, but green groups argue that it is oil money that keeps them addicted - and keeps them from getting into rehab.

During the last election cycle, the oil industry gave members of the U.S. Congress more than 13.6 million dollars, reports Steve Kretzman of Oil Change International, an NGO that researches the links between oil, gas, coal corporations and governments.

These pay-offs are excellent investments. Top U.S. oil companies reported 73 billion dollars in profits in just the first six months of this year. Part of those profits is thanks to at least four billion dollars in annual subsidies from U.S. taxpayers, noted Kretzman in a recent report.

Despite the U.S.'s ballooning debt crisis, Big Oil will continue to receive this public money in what is by far the country's biggest welfare fraud. Eight of the 12 members of the newly-named Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction charged with tackling the debt crisis have voted in the last two years to allow oil companies to keep pocketing billions in taxpayer subsidies, Kretzman found.

Remarkably, Canada's corporate welfare for Big Oil is far higher at 2.84 billion dollars in 2008 according to International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) based in Winnipeg, Canada. Last month one of the world's richest corporations, Shell Oil agreed to accept a 'gift' of 865 million in Canadian taxpayer's dollars to cover most of the cost of building an experimental carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility to cut its CO2 pollution in the tar sands.

Study after study show that public subsidies for alternative energy - not including corn ethanol - which would actually wean the U.S. and Canada of their oil addiction are a small fraction of what the oil industry get. Which begs the question: If the U.S. and Canada are really trying to kick their oil addiction, why do they keep giving their dealers bonuses?

Unless the river of money flowing into Big Oil's coffers from subsidies and the biggest corporate profits in history are diverted, scientists and activists say there is no hope of dealing with climate change, the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.

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