Obama's Final Climate Test: Keep It in the Ground

(Photo: WildEarth Guardians/flickr)

Obama's Final Climate Test: Keep It in the Ground

The coming months will be defining ones for the president and the entire planet.

As President Obama gears up for his final State of the Union address tonight, it's worth revisiting another speech he gave back in March of 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma.

The President traveled to Cushing during one of the inflection points in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. In November 2011, after a wave of protests, the State Department had delayed the project over concerns about the pipeline's route in Nebraska. That December, Congress tried to force the President's hand by passing a bill that would order him to make a final decision on whether to approve the pipeline within 60 days. In January, Obama rejected the bill, saying the timeline didn't give enough time for a proper review, and invited TransCanada, the company attempting to build the project, to submit another permit application. In February, TransCanada announced that they'd be going ahead and building the southern leg of Keystone XL, which didn't require a Presidential permit, while they waited on the rest of the pipeline to get approved. The pipeline would run from Cushing to the Gulf Coast.

A month later, under election year pressure to prove his subservience to the fossil fuel industry, Obama traveled to a windswept pipeline yard in Cushing to give what will be remembered as the worst environmental speech of his presidency. "Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years," the President declared. "That's important to know. Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some."

"The decisions about which coal, oil and gas reserves the administration intends to set off limits will determine the scorecard used by future historians in judging the President's record on the issue."

Encircle the Earth, the same planet that was reeling from climate related extreme weather events around the globe. That March ended up being the warmest on record in the continental United States, with every state breaking previous temperature records. Temperatures that August in Oklahoma, where the President spoke, would surge to 112deg, with more than half of the state topping 110deg, making it the hottest day in recorded history since 1936. As the President continued to campaign throughout the country that summer, wildfires raged across the West as the nation experienced its worst drought since the Dust Bowl.

In November, when Obama surged past his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to retake the presidency, it wasn't because of the "drill, baby, drill" philosophy he'd espoused in Cushing, but in part because of yet another climate disaster. That October, Hurricane Sandy had slammed into the Eastern Seaboard, putting New York City underwater and upending the Presidential election. Republican Governor Chris Christie put his arm around Obama, Bloomberg News published a magazine cover with the words "It's Global Warming, Stupid," and the President's handling of the disaster helped convince voters to put him back in the White House.

Meanwhile, gaining traction was a new idea that would help define climate policy for years to come. As President Obama prepared for his second term, scientists and economists were increasingly talking about a concept known as the "carbon bubble." First described by a group of researchers with Carbon Tracker in London, and then popularized by a piece by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, the idea of the carbon bubble stemmed from some simple math.

In order to keep global warming below 2degC, the world could only emit roughly 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fossil fuel industry, however, had more than 2795 gigatons of CO2 in their known reserves, five times too much, and every day were out searching for more. What this "terrifying math" showed was that the industry's business plan--and by extension the Obama administration's energy policy--was fundamentally at odds with a livable planet.

For the industry, this meant that they were creating a bubble: their value as companies depended on digging up and selling five times more coal, oil and gas then we could burn without resulting in complete catastrophe. Once climate policy caught up, and these reserves were put off limits, the stock price of the companies would plummet, leaving investors in the lurch. For the White House, it meant that an "all of the above" energy strategy was no longer compatible with solving the climate crisis: it didn't matter how many solar panels you installed, if you "encircled the Earth" with pipelines and used up the carbon budget, the planet was toast.

During the President's second term, the contradictions between an "all of the above" energy policy and administration's professed desire to combat climate change continued to reveal themselves. The White House would tout a new green technology one day, and then give Shell a green light to drill in the Arctic the next. The President would speak about the ability of the Clean Power Plan to reduce our dependence on coal, and then give mining companies greater access to the Powder River Basin, the nation's largest coal deposit. As the months went by, this Jeckyll-and-Hyde approach continued to help elevate Keystone XL as a crucial test of the President's climate legacy. Would he go the "pipe, baby, pipe" route celebrated in his speech in Cushing or accept the carbon math and become the first sitting President to reject a project because of its impact on the climate?

As 2014 and 2015 ticked by, the scientific and political case for choosing the latter grew even stronger. In September of 2014, more than 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City for the People's Climate March to demand action. A fossil fuel divestment campaign surged across college campuses and foundation board rooms, scoring major victories and further popularizing the carbon math. Across the country, polls registered that as Americans witnessed the impacts of global warming in their backyards, more of them were looking for politicians to finally do something about it.

Finally, just weeks before world leaders would gather in Paris to craft a new climate agreement, President Obama stood in the West Wing and announced that he would reject the Keystone XL pipeline because of its impact on the climate. It was a remarkable turnaround from the speech he'd given in Cushing just three and a half years earlier. Gone was the bragging about "drilling all over the place," in was a deep concern about future generations and his climate legacy. The decision would help keep hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands oil in the ground, and hand climate activists a major victory to build on.

Now, as the President gives his final State of the Union and prepares for his last year in office, the question remains: which path will he take? Will he continue to act in the way he did on Keystone XL, standing up to Big Oil and turning down projects that endanger the climate and our communities? Or will the President backslide to the Obama we saw in Cushing and continue to promote fossil fuel development, leaving a legacy full of contradictions and half-measures?

The tests ahead are clear. In the coming months, the President will issue a new five year plan that will dictate how much offshore oil and gas reserves will be put up for auction to the fossil fuel industry. A bad deal could open up new parts of the Atlantic and Arctic to offshore drilling, a good one would put large chunks of the nation's oil and gas off limits to future development. Smaller federal auctions will continue to be a flash points across the country, as climate activists join with indigenous leaders, farmers, ranchers, students and youth to try and stop the government from selling off our public lands to an industry intent on exploiting them to wreck our common future. With a new bill in Congress and large coalitions coming together, the fight to keep fossil fuels underneath public lands in the ground is very much on.

The President will also be judged by the vigor in which he goes after fossil fuel criminals like ExxonMobil. New revelations show that the company has known about global warming for decades, but continued to fund front groups that spread denial and misinformation, and supported politicians intent on blocking any sort of action to address the crisis. If Exxon is found guilty of conspiring with other oil companies to lie to the public, their shareholders, and the government about the impact climate change would have on the planet and their business, they could face the same sorts of lawsuits that helped bring down Big Tobacco. The New York state Attorney General has already launched an investigation into the matter. Activists are now calling on President Obama to instruct the Department of Justice to do the same.

Other tests will come outside of the traditional environmental policy realm. In his State of the Union, the President is expected to promote the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new trade deal that, among other problems, would give fossil fuel companies the right to sue governments that try and keep fossil fuel reserves off limits. Ironically, the Obama Administration itself is facing a lawsuit brought by TransCanada under a similar trade agreement, NAFTA, in which the company is looking for $15 billion worth of damages after the administration's "unfair" decision to block Keystone XL. There couldn't be a clearer example of how corporations are looking to use these agreements to push back on climate policies and regulations, or a stronger case for why the TPP needs to be tossed in the dustbin.

With Keystone XL rejected and the Paris agreement in his back pocket, President Obama may feel like his climate legacy is secured. But the coming months will be defining ones for his Presidency and the entire planet. Many of the fights ahead won't be in the Halls of Congress or in Washington, D.C. but out in places like Cushing, on the sharp edge between the fossil fuel era of the past and the clean energy economy of the future. The decisions about which coal, oil and gas reserves the administration intends to set off limits will determine the scorecard used by future historians in judging the President's record on the issue. Which is why the climate mantra for the rest of President Obama's term, and whoever succeeds him, is strikingly simple: keep it in the ground.

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