Insights into Obama’s Keystone XL decision from the energy policy wonkosphere

George Hoberg
November 11, 2011

Yesterday the Obama administration shook the foundations of the energy sector by calling for further review of the Keystone XL pipeline and putting off a decision until 2013. The decision left the Canadian oil establishment dumbfounded, wondering, as a Financial Post columnist put it, “why a project that Canada’s Prime Minister described as a “no brainer,” that was so desperately needed by both countries, was sunk so spectacularly by a loosely organized, fact-challenged, emotion-driven posse of anti-oil protesters.”

The unexpected decision has produced some keen insights from some great climate/energy policy thinkers. I provide a quick summary here, and I’ve added some of my own thoughts at the bottom.

Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations has a piece in the New York Times, and he followed up today with an additional blog. His New York Times op-ed emphasizes how the action-blocking nimbyism reflected by the Keystone XL victory could backfire against broader efforts to combat climate change: “The tactics and arguments that have won the day are ultimately as likely to retard clean energy development as they are to thwart dirty fuels.” Big wind projects, new transmission lines for a smart grid, and certainly new nuclear plants will all provoke the type of nimbyism that the anti-Keystone protesters have just validated.

Levi’s Friday blog elaborated on this theme by trying to speculate on what kind of political coalition could be successful in bringing legislative change in the United States. He is troubled that the anti-Keystone protests (which Levi compares to the Tea Party!) have soured relations with potential allies, such as moderate Republican, proactive energy companies, and investment banks, that would be necessary to get over the daunting hurdle of 60 votes in the U.S. Senate.

Time writer Bryan Walsh gives props to the climate movement for its political effectiveness in this case: “Of course, Keystone presented a unique opportunity in the mind-numbingly complex world of climate politics to focus public attention—and fear—on a single project that could be stopped. It was a pressure point, and McKibben and company applied a perfect Vulcan nerve pinch on it. They deserve to feel good.” But Walsh then makes much the same argument as Levi about the risk of nimbyism for a clean energy future, and questions whether the negative politics can be turned to political success for more concerted climate action.

(Levi and Walsh are taken to task by Grist blogger Christopher Mims for not appreciating the potential for distributed energy system the he believes can avoid the big project nimbyism.)

Andrew Leach of the University of Alberta Business School looks more specifically at the implications for the oil sands. He argues that there is currently surplus capacity in oil sands pipelines, but that a pinch could occur in 2020 without more pipeline capacity. He also notes there are opportunities to expand capacity without new pipeline routes from Alberta. Leach endorses Levi and Walsh’s concerns about nimbyism, but also has some very insightful comments about political strategies of project proponents, including Canada’s Prime Minister and Alberta’s Minister of Energy. “If  you play poker, and you’re going to raise the stakes,” Leach reminds the Canadian oil establishment, “it helps to have a winning hand.”

My 2 Cents

I’ve had a somewhat different perspective from my colleagues on the anti-Keystone protests. I agree about the concerns of validating nimbyism. My larger concern about the climate movement’s choice to focus so intently on this issue is that it risked externalizing the climate problem for Americans: that carbon emissions were something that came from the tar sands up north, rather than out of their tailpipes at home.

My wonk colleagues have been critical of the anti-Keystone campaign for not pursuing strategies that were optimal from a cost-effective climate mitigation perspective. I don’t challenge that conclusion. But that is the wrong, or at least terribly incomplete, standard by which to judge a social movement. I have had a lot more time and patience for the action because I believe it was the right choice at the right time for the climate movement.

The anti-Keystone campaign needs to be seen first and foremost as a regrouping and movement building exercise for climate activists.  The broad coalition put together for Waxman-Markey was impressive at an elite level, but it failed to galvanize sufficiently intense public support to withstand the Republican/Koch backlash. McKibben and friends recognized that to have meaningful success, more direct action would be required to galvanize the intensity of preferences at the grassroots level needed to foster a powerful social movement. Keystone XL turned out to be a perfect short-term vehicle for that.

It has to be recognized as a remarkably shrewd and stunningly successful tactic. It is, for now, a battle won in a much longer and larger struggle. The great challenge is in leveraging that success for something larger and more enduring. The barriers are colossal. The movement isn’t close to being united on its core ask – is it cap and trade, a carbon tax, a Manhattan project style commitment to renewables? Congress is dominated by a party that doesn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming. The public is focused on economic anxieties, and social movement energy is being captured by a focus on economic inequality through Occupy Wall Street.

The Keystone protests have given the climate movement some grassroots muscle. Time to work together on the heavier lifting.

This entry was posted in Climate Action Policy, Energy Pipelines, Oil Sands. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>