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Views from the Center


President Obama is widely expected to approve this year the construction of a massive new oil pipeline from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Texas refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting boost in the emissions of heat-trapping gases has been called the world’s biggest carbon bomb. India would be among its primary victims.

There are many reasons close to home for Americans and Canadians to oppose the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Exploitation of the tar sands has already destroyed more than 2,000 sq.  km. (772 sq. mi.) of boreal forest and fouled the waters of First Nations peoples in Canada. Experience suggests that ruptures in the pipeline are inevitable, the only question is when, where and how large they will be. The Natural Resources Defense Council is asking people to sign a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opposing the pipeline because of its destructive impact on North America’s song birds.

But the worst impacts will be on humans and these will fall most heavily in densely populated developing countries near the equator—India foremost among them.  According to the CGD Climate Vulnerability Index created by David Wheeler, India ranks first in the world in the number of people at risk from rising sea levels: 20 million today increasing to 37 million by 2050. India ranks third in the world, after China and tiny Djibouti, in terms of the share of the population likely to be affected by the alarming surge in extreme weather events, with a four-fold increase to 12% of the population by 2015. And because much of the country already experiences average temperatures near or above crop tolerance levels, India could suffer a drop in agricultural productivity of 35-40 percent by 2080. All this assumes that emissions of heat-trapping gases continue along the “business as usual” trajectory.

The tar sands are worse than business as usual, and would exacerbate these already dire forecasts. They are an unconventional fuel with an extreme impact on the atmosphere. Canada’s tar sands are the second-largest oil deposit in the world, exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. Barrel for barrel, separating oil from the tar sands emits two-to-four times more heat trapping gasses than pumping conventional oil. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has written that “exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.” Tar sands exploitation would be greatly accelerated by the Keystone XL pipeline, and once such a pipeline is built it would be politically extremely difficult to shut it down. A veritable “Who’s Who” of climate scientists has joined Hansen in writing to President Obama, who has the sole authority to approve the project, urging him to “leave the tar sands in the ground.”

President Obama has made improving relations with India a key part of his foreign policy, visiting there last year and declaring U.S. support for India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In June Secretary Clinton travelled to India for the second annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, where she and India’s Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna were reported to have “reaffirmed their countries’ strong commitment to continue ongoing efforts to address climate change, ensure mutual energy security, and build a clean energy economy that will drive investment, job creation, and economic growth throughout the 21st century.”

Because the pipeline would cross an international border, Secretary Clinton will play a key role in the administration’s decision about whether or not to approve it. As it happens, she is also the administration’s most outspoken advocate for development and oversees the U.S. foreign assistance program, including the much ballyhooed Feed the Future program—a tiny band-aid on the problem of rising temperatures and falling agricultural productivity. The United States, meanwhile, which is responsible for the lion’s share of the accumulated heat-trapping gases already starting to cook the planet, has been urging developing countries to focus on clean energy and has used its muscle to restrict World Bank lending for developing country coal-fired power plants.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Perhaps it’s time that India and other developing countries hard hit by runaway climate change turn the tables and start asking tough questions about U.S. energy policy in general and the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline in particular. India, for example, could ask: “Have you given any consideration to what the increased emissions from tapping the tar sands could mean for us?” If the answer is “yes” then approval of the pipeline could only be construed as a hostile act. If the answer is “no” then the follow up question must surely be: “Why not?”

The coming month or so would be a good time to ask. The State Department plans a series of hearings on the pipeline starting in September, with a decision to be announced by the end of the year. Meanwhile, domestic opposition to the pipeline is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. Bill McKibben of and other U.S. climate activists, dismayed at President Obama’s failure to speak frankly to Americans about the climate emergency and alarmed by the prospect of the Keystone XL Pipeline, are organizing two weeks of civil disobedience, from Aug. 20 to Sept. 3, with sit-ins in front of the White House, urging him to reject the pipeline. More than 2,000 people from across the country are coming to Washington, prepared to risk arrest. After careful consideration, and acting entirely on my own behalf rather than representing CGD or anybody else, I have decided to be among them.


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.