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Keystone Decision Seen as Climate Change Test for Obama Abroad

'Any move he makes will be carefully analyzed by the European Union and China to see what it says about his willingness to fight hard on climate change.'

Aug 15, 2013
Connie Hedegaard

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has become a top priority for environmental groups and some politicians who oppose the project—and not just in America.

With tensions over the controversial pipeline reaching fever pitch stateside, political activists and leaders abroad are closely watching the developments on the Keystone as a barometer of how willing and able President Obama is to make hard policy choices on global warming, according to an informal InsideClimate News survey.

"Obama's intentions on climate change are under intense international scrutiny," said Nick Mabey, founding director and chief executive of E3G, a London-based environmental organization. "Any move he makes will be carefully analyzed by the European Union and China to see what it says about his willingness to fight hard on climate change issues."

The dozen experts surveyed include climate researchers, advocates, economists, government advisers and politicians who help shape policies to manage climate change in their countries, from Mexico to South Africa to Europe. Most said they oppose the Keystone project, because of global warming concerns. If approved by the Obama administration, the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels daily of tar sands oil—a type of heavy crude from Canada that uses more energy and releases more greenhouse gases during mining and refining than conventional oil.  

The Keystone is seen as the linchpin in opening a coastal gateway for the flow of heavy tar sands crude from Canada’s landlocked oil patch to the world market—including to Europe, which will soon decide whether to label the fuel as highly polluting, a classification that could restrict its import into the region.

The pipeline would "increase climate risks for us all," said Sir Brian Hoskins, a climatologist and director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London. "The world needs to rapidly reduce the carbon intensity of its energy globally if we are collectively to limit the worst risks of climate change."

Most of those surveyed also agreed that Obama's decision would have climate impacts beyond the project's direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions.

Because the United States holds so much sway in world affairs, the pipeline's approval would send a signal that the world's second-biggest carbon polluter is sticking with business as usual on energy policy, dampening hopes for a meaningful global climate pact anytime soon, they suggested in their responses. Rejection of the project, on the other hand, could embolden their own countries’ efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and also energize stalemated global climate negotiations, they said.

"If you had a U.S. administration that would avoid doing something they could do [because of climate change], that would be a very, very interesting global signal," said Connie Hedegaard, a Danish politician who serves as the European Commissioner for Climate Action. Hedegaard previously told reporters that nixing the pipeline would be "an extremely strong signal" to the world.

The Obama administration is expected to determine whether the Keystone XL is in the "national interest" later this year or early next year. The project is in its fifth year of review.

Gauging Global Opinion

In an effort to survey international climate leaders on the Keystone, InsideClimate News reached out to more than 20 policy and energy experts, leaders of non-profits, scientists and politicians across the globe. A dozen replied from seven countries. They were asked the following questions: Are you paying attention to the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline? From an international perspective, do you see Keystone as a climate issue? Do you think the Obama administration's decision will have an impact on global action on climate change? And will the Obama administration's decision—whichever way it goes—influence your own actions or agenda?

All of the respondents said they have been monitoring the U.S. debate over the Keystone, which for years has pitted the North American fossil fuel industry and its allies against environmental activists and landowners along the route, and has become the focal point of the debate over America’s energy future. Many said they see the project as a test of Obama’s recent commitment to tackle climate change—with implications for global climate action and the president’s image abroad.

"President Obama and Secretary John Kerry are fortunately talking about the seriousness of the [climate] threat," said Jörg Haas, the director for global climate policies at the European Climate Foundation. "This is very welcome and necessary, and a signal of hope that is noticed elsewhere."

Given the carbon footprint of the oil sands, "approving the Keystone XL would certainly undermine the credibility of the Obama administration," Haas said.

In Obama’s first term, the issue of climate change vanished from the political debate. But last fall Hurricane Sandy forced the topic back on the national agenda. And Obama made global warming a key focus of his inaugural address in January.

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