President Obama, Keystone XL, & Grotesque Moral Failures

On January 21st, 2013 Barack Obama will deliver his second inaugural address. Many Americans, myself included, view his second induction in a very different light than Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain. Gone is the empty canvas on which a sweeping progressive vision of American could be painted, restoring the rule of law and ushering in a new era of prosperity. Since 2008, blank-canvas-Washington-outsider-Obama seems to have been placed under the D.C. screen printer and given an awesome shade of business as usual. How naïve was I to expect a candidate to actually deliver on their campaign rhetoric?

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I don’t suspect the next four years will reveal a renewed focus on bringing America back to full employment through a robust public investment program aimed at rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Instead of taking meaningful action towards preventing another massive Wall Street meltdown by destroying the concept of “Too Big To Fail”, President Obama and the White House will continue to double down on a culture of perpetual bailouts and corporate hubris.

We will forge ahead, increasing spending on military buildups, wars, and other power-projecting interventions abroad while spending on domestic programs, social security repayments, public infrastructure, education, and job creation continue to languish at home. Fabricated political crises like the “fiscal cliff”, the debt ceiling (otherwise known as paying your bills on time), and a government shutdown will continue to be used by Congress and the White House as bargaining chips in an ongoing ideological spending battle which has exactly jackshit to do with actual economics.

Unfortunately for all of us, while these budgetary crises are largely contrived, their effect on consumer confidence and spending, which makes up 70% of our GDP, is very real. Why would a business decide to hire someone when the owner can’t rely on a stable domestic economic condition but instead expects ongoing political squabbling that has an unsettling influence on the market? And yes, all of this is President Obama’s fault just as much as it is the fault of our most do-nothing Congress of all time.

I can accept acquiesce to entrenched powers as part of President Obama’s job, an unfortunate side effect of the perennially unproductive dance in Washington D.C. Granted, it has recently become quite a bit more unproductive but that’s to be expected with our swelling electoral polarization. I surely don’t expect Obama to dramatically reverse course on this range of issues now that he doesn’t have an election to win. Hell, it might even embolden him more in his use of unmanned aerial drones and persistent refusal to enforce habeas corpus for those deemed enemies of the state. Of all people Obama, the Constitutional law professor, should be ashamed of his flagrant usurpation of our founding document. But he is not.

However there is one betrayal, one failure to act that is wholly unforgivable. All these other breakdowns of moral leadership from a supposedly progressive President are but tiny speed bumps on the road to the real cliff; the climate cliff. Four more years without significant climate change leadership from the United States makes everything else a moot point. We might as well pack it in and give up. Let me clarify. By “it” I mean the giant flaming bag of shit we’ll be handing off to future generations in the form of:

  1. An archaic energy and transportation infrastructure that still runs on expensive and polluting fossil fuels.
  2. An economy wrecked by the reality of unstable but persistently high fossil fuel energy prices.
  3. A climate so totally geared to deliver gigantic storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, heat waves, crop failures, ecosystem meltdowns, and mass extinctions that it makes attempting to rebuild after every blow almost laughable.

Now I’m not suggesting that all of these things will happen in the next four years, but without strong leadership it’s only a matter of time. When we get to that point, I think the Borg said it best:

Here’s another clip you might be familiar with. Think back to 2008, when we were all still very hopeful about the prospects of our newly minted poster child actually taking action on climate change. Obama delivers this soaring promise, which would be laughable in today’s political climate if it weren’t so disappointing.

Obama gave another soaring speech on election night when he proclaimed victory over Mitt Romney and secured a second term in office. His victory lap had many of the same overtones as his 2008 speech and it was at that point when he finally broke the climate change silence that had befallen his entire campaign and the whole political discourse during his first term.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

Seriously? This guy did not utter the words climate change or global warming for the entire two-year election cycle, not even once. And then, on the grandest stage of all, he has the bravado to make the proclamation that now he’s going to do something after four years of inaction (or depending on how you look at it—obstructionism). Really guys…I mean it this time. You believe me, don’t you? Now that’s the audacity of hope if I’ve ever seen it.

Obama’s spectacular oratory has completely lost its effect on me and hopefully on everyone else who is demanding urgent action to confront climate change. It is the most harrowing and dangerous challenge that has ever threatened human civilization and it demands real action, not fluffy speeches. There won’t be a fiscal cliff to barrel off of or a debt ceiling to tear down if we push the Earth’s climate system into an intractable tailspin of feedback loops that will destroy the greatest natural resource of all, a livable climate. Our climate systems won’t wait for politicians to act; Mother Nature hasn’t yet embraced the usefulness of a filibuster.

If President Obama wants to signal his intention to act as a responsible steward of the United States, as a man who thinks several steps ahead, as a truly compassionate intellectual capable of leaving behind a proud legacy of a vibrant economy and a stable climate then the first thing he will do is reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. If you’ve never heard of Keystone XL, please allow me to explain. I’ll start by saying that it’s not that crappy keg beer you used to drink at college frat parties—although Obama should pass some legislation rejecting that stuff too.

The Keystone XL pipeline would carry synthetic crude and bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands of northeastern Alberta (that’s in Canada, eh) to several refinery sites in the Midwest and Gulf Coast of the United States. There are serious local and global environmental impacts from the production of tar sand, which would only be exacerbated by the completion of Keystone XL. Instead of focusing on those harrowing impacts, let’s first examine the economics of oil sand. The most important concept when evaluating the economics of energy production is EROEI, that’s energy returned on energy invested or just EROI for short(er). Back in the day when we had light crude oil literally seeping out of the ground in Pennsylvania, they could stick a pipe in the dirt and oil would gush out, hence the term gushers. There was such a small amount of human and mechanical energy required to harvest the oil that the J.D. Rockefellers of the world were enjoying 100:1 EROI in the twentieth century. Early oilmen became very, very, very, incredibly, inconceivably, filthy fucking rich.

But every oil field follows a similar depletion curve. At some point in its life cycle, the fluid dynamics of an oil reserve change in such a way that more human and mechanical energy is required to extract the same amount of resource. At some point the production level is no longer sustainable and the EROI drops to a point where it is uneconomical to continue production. So it’s not like the oil just keeps coming out at the same rate until the milkshake straw starts making that sucking noise. Fields are abandoned when the oil becomes too expensive—the EROI too low—to extract any more.

EROI 2

Now take that same concept and apply it to oil sand production in Alberta, where the petroleum is quite literally mixed in with subterranean sand. The whole mixture must be dug up and separated from the dirt before they can even begin refining the bitumen into usable petroleum products. It requires an ungodly amount of Earth (some 2.5 tons of sand) to produce one barrel of oil. To dig up all that sand requires an incredible amount of human and mechanical energy in the form of gigantic trucks (the biggest in the world, thousands of them), gigantic cranes with gigantic buckets (again, the biggest in the world), and gigantic egos of modern oil barons who don’t mind destroying some of our Earth’s most important geophysical features for the sake of turning a profit. Most importantly, they wouldn’t be doing any of this if cheap, abundant liquid petroleum were still available. Canadian tar sands offer an EROI of between roughly 4:1 and 6:1, a far cry from Rockefeller’s day. Widespread low-EROI production methods should sound alarm bells for us all since the entire global economy runs on fossil fuel energy. We’ve run out of the good stuff so we’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. See: deep-water drilling, Arctic exploration, deep bore fracking. It’s not all that difficult to connect the dots. And before you remark how low the EROI for solar photovoltaic is, I must say two things. One: the price of solar is coming down and will only continue to fall as capacity increases. For fossil fuels, the price goes in the opposite direction (up) as the resource is depleted. Two: the energy required to install solar panels is a one-time endeavor while tar sands open pit mining is a 24/7/365 operation. Oh yeah, and solar is clean as a baby’s bottom while tar sands are about as dirty as it gets.

oil-sands

Words simply cannot do justice to the enormity of these tar sands operations. YOU MUST CLICK HERE TO SEE MORE PHOTOS OF TAR SANDS EXTRACTION OPERATIONS IN ACTION. It is absolutely amazing and absolutely terrifying.

There’s more! You see, in order to get at all this tar sand, the holding companies—with familiar names like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Koch Resources LLC, and Chevron—must first clear the “overburden”, or what most of us would call the forest. High latitude boreal forest is the most important terrestrial carbon “sink” left on the planet. These vast forests of the northern hemisphere absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than the Amazonian rainforests. They’re kind of important. To dig them up for any reason is bad. To dig them up in order to pump even more carbon into the atmosphere is a little like the Tom and Jerry episode where the mouse feeds the cat his own tail.

MOUSE DINNER

This is all bad news and should be reason enough for President Obama and incoming Secretary of State John “Longface” Kerry to deny the permits that TransCanada, a Canadian firm, needs in order to build the Keystone XL pipeline across several state boarders in the US. The environmental consequences are unspeakable, and we didn’t even get to the potential contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates almost 30% of the crops in the United States and provides drinking water for untold millions of Americans. But the real crime of Keystone XL would come in the form of missed opportunities to invest in the future instead of doubling down on the past.

The Canadian tar sands are an incredible source of liquid petroleum energy. Their vast size and production potential are truly unmatched by other tar sand reserves. However if President Obama and Mr. Kerry decide to approve this project, they will be sending a strong signal that America is not yet seriously interested in investing in the energy sources of tomorrow. Production capacity for solar panels and wind turbines will continue to evaporate from the United States as we pursue business as usual, foolishly trying to suck up the last, melted little bit of the milkshake.

We can do better. Business as usual is the default position of unimaginative politicians, locked in by special interests and afraid of trying to explain new concepts to their constituents. Instead of taking a risk and acting in the best interests of their people, our elected officials assume we’re a bunch of cows would couldn’t possibly understand the intricacies of a global energy market. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline route crosses the heartland of America, a place where energy and commodity prices have a particularly important meaning. I’d be willing to bet that these “laymen” who our elected officials are so afraid to shake up understand a thing or two about global economic forces.

Many people fully appreciate the significance of Keystone XL, and they’ve been taking the fight to TransCanada. These people aren’t all “environmentalists” either. As an aside: if you live on this planet, breathe its air, and drink its water then you are an environmentalist as you implicitly rely on the health of your environment for your own physical wellbeing. Yes, even you. Moving on…the protesters are not all tree huggers. World-renowned scientists like NASA’s Chief Climatologist James Hansen has been arrested protesting Keystone XL and he’s not tapping the breaks one little bit. He’s gone so far as to say that Keystone XL would basically be “game over” in the fight to maintain a livable climate.

As of late, things are not looking good. President Obama pushed off a decision about Keystone XL in response to a massive protest orchestrated by 350.org in November of 2011. Many suggested he was simply kicking the can until after the election, at which point he would be in a position to approve the pipeline without jeopardizing his reelection. That prediction appears to be coming to fruition. Just last week the Environmental Protection Agency’s director Lisa Jackson, a strong and vocal opponent of Keystone XL, resigned quite suddenly. Speculation is rampant that her departure is in protest to an impending Obama approval of Keystone XL. Her potential successor, outgoing Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire, has a mixed record on the environment. She has a reputation for being a real climate advocate for Western Washington crowds, but changing her tune quite profoundly on the other side of the Cascade Mountains where agriculture and transportation are key electoral factors. On the one hand I’d be proud to have a former Washington State governor serving at the EPA, but if she’s simply being brought in to rubber stamp fore drawn conclusions of the Obama Administration, Gregoire should keep out of it.

If President Obama throws the White House’s weight behind getting Keystone XL approved, it will be his most grotesque moral failure to date. More so than using drones to kill American citizens or approving the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which grants Presidents sweeping powers to detain and hold prisoners indefinitely and without charge, regardless of where they are captured. Keystone XL represents complete ambivalence about the future of our children and grandchildren. It’s not just the pipeline we need to worry about. Approving TransCanada’s plan is supporting, one final time, our absolute and total addiction to fossil fuels. An “all of the above” energy policy supports not just tar sands, but everything else. NASA’s James Hansen put it best:

If [Obama] chooses the dirty needle it is game over because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction. Canada is going to sell its dope, if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict.

Some day in the not too distant future, liquid fossil fuels will become uneconomical to pull out of the ground and if we haven’t begun to move in a different direction, we’ll have hell to pay. We can’t rely on our children and grandchildren to be able to make an overnight transition to non-carbon energy. It takes, on average, four decades to transition from one energy source to the next. Steam to coal: 40 years. Coal to oil: 40 years. Why would we expect our transition off of fossil fuels to take any less time, or be any less inevitable?

Our first step in a hopeful direction for future generations is rejecting this pipeline. In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama once again delivered a powerful speech; this one seemingly from the heart. The President spoke of his horror upon hearing about the massacre of 27 innocents, including 20 six and seven year-olds. He became choked up when he talked about his own young daughters and suggested, “We’re going to have to come together to take meaningful action to prevent further tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” He looked at this horrifying event not as a politician, but as a father. Climate related policy issues demand the same metric of decision-making. It is, after all, our children’s future we’re talking about.

Want to get involved? On February 17th, 2013, 350.org is organizing another massive demonstration outside the White House. Tens of thousands of protestors will be there to express their opposition to Keystone XL and show their support for a new vision of the future. You can sign up to participate here, or simply register your support for those who will defy freezing winter temperatures and the risk of arrest for something they believe in. If nothing else, talk to someone about Keystone XL, spread the word.

If President Obama and his State Department approve Keystone XL, you can expect many more disappointing decisions over the next four years. Such a conclusion would expose Obama’s malleability at a very fundamental level. This is Obama’s chance to demonstrate true leadership in the national interest. I demand more of our President than simply rolling over for entrenched interests and anticipate that he will begin enforcing a forwarding-facing vision of the United States instead of desperately trying to hold onto the past.

2 comments

  1. John Gaylord

    Growing up in the ’60s, I learned about Hubbert’s curve, the Limits to Growth, the Greening of America, Small is Beautiful, and Make Love not War. I participated in anti-Vietnam war protests, went to lectures and seminars, worked on alternative energy and anti-nuclear energy initiatives, and so on. But much of my efforts were wasted because the American people insist on their comforts and “exceptional” way of life regardless of the cost to the rest of the world and to future generations. The corporate imperative of immediate profit at any cost has become the dominant ethos, even while it has gutted U.S. manufacturing and destroyed millions of living-wage jobs…and the American people continue to support this race to the bottom and gold to the top, albeit to a lesser extent recently. Since the 2008 financial crash and mortgage meltdown, and the subsequent bailout and get out of jail free for the bankster crooks, the staggering loss of middle class assets has still not influenced a quiescent and malleable public to take to the streets. Climate change and population growth are “not my problem” for most people, and their continued behavior and consumption patterns prove it. I have drastically changed mine, by riding a bicycle and public transit for almost all my transportation, downsizing and significantly cutting back on my energy and materials consumption, continuing to recycle and reuse, etc. But for the most part, my neighbors and most others in my city don’t even bother.

    So, I’m very sorry to be so fatalistic and cynical, but I have to conclude that people get what they deserve and the human race is a blight upon this planet which nature will have to dispense with. I don’t have children, which was my conscious decision, and I think it’s irresponsible to bring more children into the world unless and until this malaise is fixed (which ain’t gonna happen in my lifetime). I will continue to go to rallies against the Keystone XL pipeline and other abominations, but I don’t think there’s much point to it. Not until the planet is ruined will people learn how they caused it. Not until the oligarchs have no place to take refuge will they relent from their destruction. It is “the mendacity of nope” that has most of the world gripped by the throat and Obama is just being a good boy.

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