Column: Rejection of Keystone XL pipeline sets climate change precedent

TransCanada's Keystone pipeline facilities in Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. Following the Obama administration’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the oil industry faces the tricky task of making sure the crude oil targeted for the pipeline still gets where it needs to go. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

Last Friday, President Obama denied the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would have spanned 1,179 miles from the oil sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast, carrying about 800,000 barrels of oil per day. The decision came just about a month before a United Nations summit meeting on the topic of climate change scheduled for December in Paris. 

This final stage of a long-standing construction endeavor, of which about 40 percent has been built, would have stretched from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. This final part, however, has been mired in controversy for years. 

Naturally, there were the environmental concerns that are usually associated with projects of this sort. According to NPR, the production of crude oil, the purpose of the Keystone XL project, emits about 17 percent more greenhouse gases when compared with traditional oil drilling throughout the United States. This is due to the fact that the oil must be heated in order to extract it from contaminating sand.

To counter this view, the State Department published an environmental review arguing that the Keystone XL pipeline ultimately would not have contributed a significant amount of greenhouse gases, as the oil would still be extracted and produced via existing means. 

Frankly, this was a weak argument on the part of the State Department that essentially boiled down to “it’s gonna happen anyway so it doesn’t matter if we add to it.”

Another selling point of the pipeline was the potential for a vast number of jobs that could be created. According to NPR, the State Department’s estimates placed the possible number of jobs directly or indirectly related to the construction of the pipeline to be nearly 42,000 and about $2 billion in earnings.

This economic growth would have been short-lived, however, as once the pipeline was finished, only about 50 permanent jobs would be formed in its wake. Thus, the pipeline appeared to be a less palatable project once its true benefits, or lack thereof, were uncovered. 

The transnational nature of the project granted an extraordinary amount of power to the presidency, as crossing the border between Canada and the United States necessitated presidential approval for the pipeline to be green lit, according to NPR.

President Obama faced division within his own party as those in support of construction unions saw the tangible economic benefits of the project while those rallying behind environmentalism saw the Keystone XL pipeline as further insult to nature. 

The president’s decision on Friday indicates his stance on the matter and his choice represents his administration’s concern for the future of the environment. Thus, the wellbeing of the earth has taken precedence over short-term job growth. 

All things considered, President Obama has made the right decision. His choice is grounded in sound scientific reasoning, as despite being a relative drop in an oil-filled bucket, the Keystone XL pipeline would still contribute greenhouse gases that ultimately induce worldwide climate change. He also saw through the enticing but short-term job prospects that are overshadowed by such grim environmental impacts. Perhaps most importantly, President Obama has realized the legacy he wishes to leave behind in the waning months of his administration.

“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” said President Obama in a statement on the pipeline. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”

The president realizes the value in leading through example. His rejection of the project represents a very tangible belief in the threat of climate change—a belief that I hope spreads to leaders in other nations during next month’s U.N. climate change summit in Paris. 

This hard, inconvenient truth is just that: a truth. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the “scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” NASA states that this worldwide shift in climate is induced by the accumulation of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere and can ultimately result in far more frequent wildfires, a rise in droughts and a larger number of more severe tropical storms that may devastate many areas of the world.

The president’s choice to curtail the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline may not amount to much more than a symbolic gesture, but such a decision may resound for generations to come.


Vinay Maliakal is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at vinay.maliakal@uconn.edu.