After Obama's climate speech on Tuesday and the reaction that followed, a couple of questions stand out.
Number one. Is it possible that the anti-Keystone XL movement counting victory on the controversial tar sands project prematurely?
And second. Have environmental groups more broadly been too friendly to President Obama in the aftermath of a mere speech, however welcome its rhetorical flourishes?
With a showering of praise from 'big green' groups like NRDC, Sierra Club, and Environment America—the last of which decided to launch an expensive 'thank you' TV ad for the president—is it possible that the environmental movement is easing off the pressure at exactly the moment they should be holding Obama's feet more firmly to the fire?
As Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said in his remarks about the speech, climate change "poses a near-existential threat to humanity," and presidential rhetoric—especially vague rhetoric—is simply too little and too late.
"We need a national mobilization – and indeed a worldwide mobilization – to transform rapidly from our fossil fuel-reliant past and present to a clean energy future," Weissman said. "We need a sense of urgency – indeed, emergency – massive investments, tough and specific standards and binding rules."
Though the president offered none of that, many groups were blasting praise to their memberships and heralding a new era of executive action.
But where's the action?
If you want to know what President Obama signaled about his pending decisions about the Keystone XL pipeline, just read the headlines:
Analysts see okay for Keystone as Obama muddies the debate (the Globe and Mail);
Keystone XL pipeline: Did Obama just drop a big hint about his decision? (Christian Science Monitor);
After speech, Canada confident Keystone XL will be approved (Mining Gazette);
Obama hints that Keystone XL may be rejected (Raw Story);
or Obama hints at Keystone approval (Politico)
Or don't. Because the truth of the matter seems that everyone is entitled to interpret Obama's surprise comments about the controversial tar sands project however they feel most comfortable.
First, here's what the president said during his address at Georgetown University on Tuesday:
I know there’s been ... a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.
But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.
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In response, some of the groups most vocal and active in their opposition praised Obama's language, saying they were both surprised and heartened because to them it meant that the president could not make such bold public statements and then—given all the available science and public outcry— turn around and approve the project.
"This is an appropriate standard that the president appears to be setting on Keystone XL," said 350.org's Bill McKibben, probably the group best known for organizing and standing against Keystone XL. "The president is saying what the science has always demanded. It's encouraging news for certain."
The answer to Obama's question about the "pipeline's impact on our climate" is clear, said Oil Change International. "Keystone XL will greatly impact our climate, and thus our communities and our children," the group opposed to the project said. "On this basis, the pipeline must be denied."
But though groups like Oil Change International and 350.org—long associated with promoting the scientific consensus on climate change—may understand the certainty of the warnings associated with the further development of the Alberta tar sands, it is not at all clear that the State Department shares this understanding.
Indeed, here's what the State Department's draft Supplement Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) itself said:
[F]rom a global perspective, the decision whether or not to build the Project will not affect the extraction and combustion of WCSB [Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin] oil sands crude on the global market. However, on a life-cycle basis and compared with reference crudes refined in the United States, oil sands crudes could result in an increase in incremental GHG emissions.
As others have pointed out, this creates a very possible loophole because what this phrasing really says is that while tars sands development itself will definitely increase carbon emissions, the mere building of the Keystone XL pipeline will not.
If interpreted this way by the State Department, and if Obama follows their guidance as he suggested he will, then the fate of Alberta's "carbon bomb" has now been entrusted to nuanced legal interpretations of a highly controversial impact study.
And as Politico reports, proponents of the pipeline were in a mostly celebratory mood.
The company building the pipeline and many of its top supporters in Congress saw Obama’s remarks as highly encouraging.
Keystone builder TransCanada said in a statement that it’s “pleased with the President’s guidance to the State Department, as the almost five-year review of the project has already repeatedly found that these criteria are satisfied.” Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said Obama’s remarks were “a positive step forward toward getting this project built, creating jobs and decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of oil.” And a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said “the standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline.”
And despite the hopes and desires of environmentalists, even as they once again enjoyed his rhetorical gifts, Obama just might.
When and if he does it will be TransCanada—as tar sands oil snakes its way from Alberta to the Gulf coast for export—who will be producing the next batch of 'thank you' ads for the president.