New Yorker Highlights Keystone XL, Profiles Billionaire Environmentalist At Center of its U.S. Opposition

Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker offers a great article on Keystone XL.  But does it miss the bigger picture on how Canada and the United States can effectively address environmental issues?  Read below to find out the answer, and see what Gary Doer–Canada’s Ambassador to the United States–reveals about President Obama’s private thinking on Keystone XL approval.

Lizza’s profile Tom Steyer, the billionaire who is leading the charge against Keystone XL,, is definitely worth a read.  

But what makes this article so interesting for Canada-U.S. buffs is its less obvious focal points:  (1) the mixed motivations that may be pushing Tom Steyer into this advocacy role, and (2) reporting into President Obama’s internal Keystone XL thinking.  (Note:  Those sections can be read below/definitely read Ambassador Gary Doer’s on-the-record quotation.)

What I wish could be emphasized.  Pushing Tom Steyer into financing and advocacy on getting Canada and the United States to further their joint efforts on the environment.  

Even Steyer implicitly admits Keystone may not be “the perfect fight.” So why not move the target to an area where (1) more environmental impact can be felt, (2) an important diplomatic relationship isn’t stress, and (3) binational pathways already exist?

Article highlights.  From The New Yorker article (which merits a full read when you have the time):

In recent months, Obama has been looking for ways to act without Congress. Climate change happens to be the one policy area that requires almost nothing from Capitol Hill in order for him to make a major difference. “In my State of the Union address, I urged Congress to come up with a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one that Republican and Democratic senators worked on together a few years ago,” he said in his June climate speech. “And I still want to see that happen. I’m willing to work with anyone to make that happen. But this is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock. It demands our attention now. And this is my plan to meet it.” He directed the E.P.A. to issue new rules curbing emissions from coal-fired power plants. Electricity plants running on coal produce more than a quarter of U.S. carbon pollution. Depending on the stringency of the new E.P.A. rules, they could be even more consequential than his 2012 automobile regulations.

Accounts of Obama’s private views about his second-term climate agenda suggest that he sees the E.P.A. rules as his real legacy on the issue, and that he’s skeptical of the environmentalists’ claims about Keystone. “He thinks the greenhouse-gas numbers have been inflated by opponents,” Ambassador Doer said. Journalists who discussed the issue with Obama earlier this year in off-the-record sessions said that he told them the same thing. Some of Steyer’s allies on the climate issue also remain unconvinced that Keystone is the right battle. Rubin, who will be an adviser to the climate initiative being launched by Steyer, Paulson, and Bloomberg, says he doesn’t oppose the pipeline, and Shultz, another adviser to the new effort, favors approving Keystone. “This is oil that’s going to be produced whether or not there’s a Keystone pipeline,” Shultz said. “Get over it!”

But the deterioration of Obama’s legislative agenda and the growing strength of the movement against the pipeline have convinced some that the odds are now higher that Obama will deny the pipeline permit. “I think it’s a fifty-fifty proposition,” Podesta said.

For many activists, the opposition to Keystone isn’t really about the pipeline; they admit that no single project will tip the balance on climate change. Rather, they want Obama to use Keystone as a symbolic opportunity to move America away from fossil fuels. On the night Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, he pledged to “free this nation from the tyranny of oil, once and for all.” In his second Inaugural Address, he said, “The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.” Speaking of Obama’s coming decision on Keystone, the former senior Administration official pointed out, “Rarely do you get an opportunity to so easily define who you are and what you think the future of this country should look like from an energy perspective.”

For many activists, the opposition to Keystone isn’t really about the pipeline; they admit that no single project will tip the balance on climate change. Rather, they want Obama to use Keystone as a symbolic opportunity to move America away from fossil fuels. On the night Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, he pledged to “free this nation from the tyranny of oil, once and for all.” In his second Inaugural Address, he said, “The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.” Speaking of Obama’s coming decision on Keystone, the former senior Administration official pointed out, “Rarely do you get an opportunity to so easily define who you are and what you think the future of this country should look like from an energy perspective.”

In Keystone, Steyer has picked an issue that enables him to win regardless of Obama’s decision. Leading the fight against the pipeline will help him in a future political campaign in his home state. “He’s now won two major ballot campaigns in California, and has an incredibly strong relationship with both labor and environmentalists, in a state where it costs fifty million dollars to be a competitive candidate,” Lehane said. “In terms of California brand and California politics, he’s in a pretty sweet place.”

The stakes for Obama are higher. There are few opportunities to influence the politics of climate change and leave a legacy on the issue. If he intends to lead an effort to write an international treaty on climate change, as he has promised, taking a stand against the oil sands would provide moral authority in those negotiations, Steyer said: “If you want a leadership position, you have to make public, hard decisions, stick with them, and lead. Everyone’s watching this around the world. Everyone knows this is his big choice. You can’t whiff on the big choices and then turn around and say, ‘But, you know, we really are leading on this—except when it’s inconvenient to us.’ ”

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