Lessons From the Senate's Keystone XL Debate

The climate crisis is back on the Congressional agenda, but with a Congress that remains institutionally incapable of addressing the problem head on.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is the new chairman of the Senate Environment Committee and the chamber's leading naysayer on the mainstream science of climate. Credit: U.S. Embassy Kiev Ukraine

Nobody really needs a sense-of-the-Senate resolution to figure out whether climate change is real, or what is causing it.

So what can we learn from the past week or so of debate around the Keystone XL pipeline, and the shadow-boxing amendments it inspired?

One lesson seems to be that the climate crisis, with all its complicated energy policy baggage, is back on the Congressional agenda.

Another is that the Congress remains institutionally incapable of addressing the problem head on.

Hence the convoluted debate unfurling, ostensibly over whether the Keystone XL line, meant to carry high-carbon tar sands fuel from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, is in the national interest.

It's a question that President Obama is now expected to decide within a few weeks, after years of delay—a decision he says he'll make largely on the question of climate change impacts. Rather than waiting for the final agency comments to reach the State Department, the new Republican majority has elevated this bill to its No. 1 priority, to force the president's hand and push the pipeline through.

But the White House has already said that Obama would veto this attempt to strip him of his permit power over trans-border pipelines, so the debate over S.1 rang all the more hollow whether any particular amendment was attached to it, or discarded.

For all the talk, this debate was a good example of what's meant by the ironic German word sitzkrieg—the art of warfare by doing nothing.

The question, to borrow a phrase from one amendment, became whether the Senate itself is "real and not a hoax."

Even as an effigy of a broad, game-changing debate over energy and climate, the KXL bill could have offered a chance to talk about some fundamental issues. Instead, the Senators mostly talked about matters that were either too ethereal or too mundane to affect the real policy choices that are at stake.

Is climate change real? Does mankind contribute to it? Significantly? That's pretty high-falutin' stuff, even for the world's greatest deliberative body.

Or, at a nittier and grittier level, how about the 8 cent per barrel tax on crude oil shipments, used to finance the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund—should that also apply to diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from the tar sands? Please, somebody suggest the absence of a quorum.

A $64,000-a-Day Question

At least on the spill-tax question, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the new Energy Committee chairwoman, assembled a majority of 75 to declare that the dilbit loophole ought to be closed—at some future point. The House, Murkowski was careful to note, would have to act first, as in all tax legislation; so an amendment to actually make the fix now was tabled.

So much for what could be, on an 800,000-barrel-a-day line like KXL, a $64,000-a-day question.

Alas, the core policy questions regarding climate change are harder to resolve, and easier to dodge.

They include this one: whether most of our proven reserves of fossil fuels need to be left in the ground if we are to avoid the biggest risks of climate change.

That emerging consensus, increasingly shared among climate experts, but not entirely settled, flies in the face of the Senate majority's insistence that fossil fuel production should be increased. Why not argue the question, and vote on it?

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of a handful of Republicans who acknowledge that human emissions of carbon dioxide cause global warming, gave a taste of what this kind of debate might sound like. President Obama was threatening a veto because his "judgment has been taken over by the environmental community which is hell-bent on no fossil fuels anywhere, anyway, anyhow," Graham said. "That is not the world in which we live. I embrace the fact that a lower carbon economy will be beneficial over time. My view is: Find more fossil fuels from friendly people, including our own backyard—Canada, the United States—to replace fossil fuels we have to buy from foreign entities that do not like us very much. That concept is a reality. We are not going to be able to replace fossil fuels any time soon."

'Some of the Dirtiest Oil on This Planet'

On the other hand, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who offered the toughest climate amendment of all, only to see it tabled, fulminated at the debate's missed opportunities.

"As we debate the Keystone pipeline, what disturbs me very much is that in the face of this overwhelming evidence from the scientific community, in the face of deep concerns about climate change all over the world, what is the Senate going to be doing in the next week or two?" he demanded. "Are we going to be voting to impose a tax on carbon so we can break our dependence on fossil fuel? Is that what we are going to be voting on? No, I don't think so. Are we going to be voting to pass legislation that moves us aggressively toward energy efficiency and weatherization and such sustainable energies as wind, solar, and geothermal? Is that what we are going to be voting on as we listen to the scientific community? No, I don't think so. Are we going to be passing a bill investing in research and development so that we can make our transportation system more energy efficient? Is that what we are going to be voting on? No, we are not. In fact, what we are going to be voting on is a bill that will allow for an increase in the production and transportation of some of the dirtiest oil on this planet. That is what we are going to be voting on. What we are voting on is a proposal that moves us in exactly the opposite direction from what the scientific community wants us to do."

Instead of these arguments, the part of the Senate debate that got the most attention came when the talk drifted away from the evidence of NOAA, which had just declared 2014 to be probably the warmest year on record, and onto the evidence of Noah, who long ago got a promise from God to never again flood the planet or mess with its seasons.

That citation (Genesis 8:22) is a favorite of Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the new chairman of the Senate Environment Committee and the chamber's leading naysayer on the mainstream science of climate—and one who refers easily to scripture as a trump card over science.

This time, he twisted his sola-scriptura reasoning into a parliamentary pretzel so as to bless Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island's amendment, which declared simply that "climate change is real and not a hoax."

Everybody understood that this wording was aimed squarely at Inhofe, who wrote a book debunking climate science as "The Greatest Hoax."

But Inhofe, grabbing the attention of man-bites-dog headline writers, announced that he'd happily co-sponsor Whitehouse's amendment, as it made no mention of human involvement in either the climate problem or its solution.

'Man Can't Change the Climate'

"Climate is changing," Inhofe said on the floor. "Climate has always changed, and it always will. There is archaeological evidence of that, there is Biblical evidence, and there is historical evidence. It will always change. The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant, who think that they are so powerful, that they can change the climate. Man can't change the climate."

This, followed by a fulsome rendition of Inhofe's rejectionist view of action on climate change, provided an ample fig leaf to let other Republicans shamelessly taste Whitehouse's otherwise forbidden fruit. The amendment passed 98-1. (The lone holdout, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, is the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, charged with increasing the party's majority.)

Most Republicans, though, balked at Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz's more explicit amendment, which said: "Climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change." That won 50 votes, including just five from Republicans. Because of Senate rules requiring 60 votes to pass any of these amendments, it failed.

Most Republicans also shunned a fuzzier version from one of their own partisans, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, a leading pro-KXL voice. He left out the word "significantly" in regard to the human role in warming, and won over an additional nine Republicans. Hoeven got 59 votes, and failed.

Somewhere, senators had learned a new way to treat a political football: deflate it, and it's pretty easy to handle.

By late Thursday night, when the Sanders amendment was tabled along with several others and the Senate headed home for the weekend, its work unfinished, few people remarked on the reach of the substantive language Sanders wanted to discuss.

'An Embarrassment Before the Entire World'

Not only is climate change "real" and "caused by humans," the Sanders amendment proposed, "It is imperative that the United States transform its energy system away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy as rapidly as possible."

Even among the greenest senators, few want to speak aloud these words about fossil fuels, let alone vote for them. Many would rather talk about politically appealing side issues, like whether to ban exporting the products of tar sands oil (Ed Markey), or whether the pipe that carries tar sands to refineries should be made in America (Al Franken). Tabled, and tabled.

In the end, as David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote, the Senate found itself somewhere between know-nothingism and do-nothingism.

Another possible lesson is this: even vapid debates have consequences. The floor fight on Keystone could already be coloring the reputation of the Senate.

"I hope very much the U.S. Senate does not reject science," Sanders said. "In doing so, it would not only lead to bad public policy, but it would be an embarrassment before the entire world, that the U.S. is rejecting what the overwhelming majority of scientists are telling us about what they consider to be one of the great crises facing our planet."

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