Bringing Science Back to the Fore, Keystone XL Edition
There was joy in some quarters over the Obama decision to deny the permit to TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline to carry tarsands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. I’m glad for the decision, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement of either concerns about potential damage caused by spills from the pipeline (TransCanada’s record is not terribly encouraging in that regard) or concerns about what tapping into the tar sands will do to the climate (the implications from the permafrost are particularly frightening). Rather, it was political posturing for effect by DC politicians on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The GOP forced a rider into must-pass legislation saying “You’ve got 60 days to approve or deny” and State said — back then — that with that kind of a time limit, they’d have no choice but to deny. And this week, they did just that.
The insanity of the GOP vs White House discussion is obvious, if you shrink this down to a city-sized situation . . .
Imagine a town where a developer wants to renovate a major structure near the downtown area. Such a project needs the approval of both the planning commission and then the city council. The planning commission, as is their practice, wants to see detailed plans, construction schedules, and assess the impact on nearby properties before making a decision on the permits for the project. The developer has some of these items, but not all of them, and also says “we might have some changes to the things we’ve already given you.” The planning commission, as a result, says “we’ll be here when you’ve got a complete proposal for us to examine.”
At the same time, the developer goes to friends on the city council and gets them to pass a resolution directing the planning commission to hold a vote within 60 days. If no vote is taken, the council will take that as a “yes” to the project and move ahead with their own vote. (Assume for the sake of discussion that this is legal, of course.)
The planning commission looks at things and says “Let’s see . . . we’ve got no specific building plan, no firm proposal for construction times, no solid idea of what exactly the project will end up looking like, and nothing that we can show to the neighborhood to get their reaction. Unless and until we get these things, we have no choice but to deny the permit. NOBODY GETS A BLANK PERMIT FOR CONSTRUCTION WORK IN THIS TOWN.”
That’s what the White House decision was about. This was no great victory for the environment, but simply the latest episode in the tug of war that is ongoing.
This wasn’t a battle over the merits of the pipeline — not by the GOP and not by the Dems. It was a battle for control between the WH and Congress, with plenty of overtones to be used in the 2012 elections.
Which is sad, really. And, as Ellie noted, scary.
Bill McKibben did a Q&A over at the Washington Post after the decision was announced, and had some very cogent observations of his own. The very first exchange really sums things up well:
Q: How discouraging is it for climate change activists to hear so many presidential candidates state they do not believe climate change is real? I personally understand there is some disagreement amongst the scientific community as to how quickly and to what degree the climate is changing, but I have not seen any scientist (who is not a paid shill of a special interest in this debate) disagree that it is happening. Why isn’t the science of this getting across to several of our leading political figures?
Bill McKibben: It’s truly amazing. Newt said yesterday that Obama was like the president of Mars, but in fact, Obama is at least trying to be a resident of this planet, with its particular physics and chemistry. It’s the GOP presidential hopefuls that seem embarked on a fantastic tour to some other corner of the universe with very different physical properties.
Welcome to the 2012 election cycle.
Bill is no spectator to this, as folks around here know. In that Q&A, he was asked “What’s the next battle?” and his reply sounds very interesting:
Bill McKibben: We’ll be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday–500 or so of us in referee’s shirts. We’re going to ‘blow the whistle’ on congressional collusion with oil money. Not just Keystone; we want to point out that these guys take money from companies they then send subsidies to. The game is rigged. If it was the Superbowl we’d be up in arms. We should be here too. (Well, not arms, I guess. We’re a non-violent bunch.)
They may be non-violent, but they are not easily dismissed. If you’d like to help out, Bill’s got information about joining the efforts here. Says Bill (emphasis in the original):
We’ve won no permanent victory (environmentalists never do) but we have shown that spirited people can bring science back to the fore. Blocking one pipeline was never going to stop global warming—but it is a real start, one of the first times in the two-decade fight over climate change when the fossil fuel lobby has actually lost.
Rest assured they’ll fight like heck—their world-record profits depend on it. We better fight just as hard, because the world depends on it.