Keystone Pipeline Delay Opens the Way to Consider Climate and Development Impacts

November 11, 2011

Yesterday’s U.S. government decision to re-consider the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, opens the way for policymakers to include consideration of the climate and development impact of decision. Unfortunately, announcements of the decision suggest this is not necessarily part of the plan.In a teleconference yesterday (transcript here), Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, defined the scope of the reconsideration extremely narrowly:

"We’ve taken a decision regarding the Keystone XL pipeline project to seek additional information regarding potential alternative routes. And these potential alternative routes that we would be looking into will be within the state of Nebraska."
As anybody who has followed the issue or happened to be near the White House on Sunday knows, concern about the broader climate impacts are central to the campaign to block the pipeline. Yet Jones did not say the words “climate change” in discussing the decision. And reporters dropped the ball: none asked if the climate change impacts would be among the considerations this time around.They should be. In a recent CGD Note, David Wheeler calculated that full exploitation of Canada’s oil sands deposit would impose significant agricultural productivity losses on over 3 billion people in the developing world, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. CGD president Nancy Birdsall, in a recent letter to Maria Otero, the Under Secretary of State responsible for environmental stewardship, economic growth, and social development, wrote:
"The magnitude of the emissions associated with Alberta oil sands exploitation would have very large impacts on global climate…I hope you will use the full extent of your influence to help ensure that these issues are properly included in the decision process."
President Obama, who said last week that he would make the decision on the controversial pipeline himself, waited until after the State Department announcement and then said he supported State’s decision. He avoided the “C” word, as has been his practice since becoming president. But the carefully worded White House statement seemed to leave open the possibility that climate issues would be considered:
"Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood. The final decision should be guided by an open, transparent process that is informed by the best available science and the voices of the American people."
Bill McKibben, who launched the campaign to block the pipeline because of the climate impact, wrote a celebratory letter in which he urged supporters to join him in pressing to ensure that the next round of environmental review for the pipeline will be subject to careful scrutiny—including climate impacts. (The State Department Inspector General is investigating possible conflict of interest in the process.)McKibben has travelled widely in the developing world as part of his campaign for climate action and frequently speaks about the impacts of climate change on poor people in the developing world. I hope that the newly energized climate action movement in the United States will persuade President Obama to overcome his strange reticence on the issue, show some leadership, and begin to do the same.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.