President Obama on Tuesday used his veto power for just the third time in his presidency, vetoing legislation that would have authorized construction of a 1,179-mile pipeline that would carry 800,000 barrels a day of heavy petroleum from the oil sands of Alberta to ports and refineries on the Gulf Coast.
However, the veto, at least for now, appears to have been on largely procedural issues – the President rejected this as an attempt by lawmakers to force his hand on the pipeline. As the New York Times reported, “By rejecting the legislation, Mr. Obama retains the right to make a final judgment on the pipeline on his own timeline. But he did little to calm the political debate over Keystone, which has become a symbol of the continuing struggle between environmentalists and conservatives.”
The veto message read: “Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.”
He added, “The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.”
Naturally the reaction was mixed, ranging from House Speaker John Boehner calling it a “national embarrassment” and accusing the President of being “too close to environmental extremists” and “too invested in left-fringe politics.”
On the other hand, environmentalists hailed the decision, seeing it as indicating the President’s intention to reject the pipeline altogether.
“Republicans in Congress continued to waste everyone’s time with a bill destined to go nowhere, just to satisfy the agenda of their big oil allies,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. “The president has all the evidence he needs to reject Keystone XL now, and we are confident that he will.”
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called it “the right decision at the right time.”
She wrote, “The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has repeatedly been shown to be dangerous to our water, communities and climate. And it makes no economic sense, putting the livelihoods of American farmers and ranchers at risk while only creating 35 permanent U.S. jobs.”
The Times writes, “Most energy policy experts say the project will have a minimal impact on jobs and climate. But Republicans insist that the pipeline will increase employment by linking the United States to an energy supply from a friendly neighbor. Environmentalists say it will contribute to ecological destruction and damaging climate change.”
Earlier this month, the EPA issued a report that concluded that the process of extracting oil from the Canadian oil sands would produce about 17 percent more greenhouse gas pollution than the process used to extract conventional oil – at the same time, the oil would be reduced with or without the construction of the pipeline.
Without the pipeline, the oil would be transported via rail, which increasingly has been cited as a public safety risk, both at a local level and nationally.
The NRDC writes, “The proposed $7 billion tar sands oil pipeline would run 2,000 miles across the American heartland, crossing the country’s largest freshwater aquifer to reach the Texas Gulf Coast. There, refineries would process a projected 830,000 barrels of dirty crude daily, most of them bound for overseas markets, with negligible impact on U.S. energy independence or gas prices.”
They write, “The new pipeline would be harmful for people, water, wildlife, and climate.”
They argue that the tar sands pipelines “are more vulnerable to leaks than those carrying traditional crude because of the oil’s corrosive nature and the chemicals necessary to make it run through the pipes.”
Moreover, the composition of the oil means the “mining and refining tar sands oil demands an enormous amount of energy — much more than conventional crude. Keystone XL would ramp up tar sands production, requiring even more energy and creating greater carbon pollution: the equivalent of Americans driving an unthinkable 60 billion extra miles every year.”
James Hansen, a NASA scientist, in a 2012 op-ed in the New York Times, wrote, “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”
He adds, “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”
For the President’s part, in his State of the Union address, he urged both sides to “set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. “ As the Times notes, “Mr. Obama has hinted that he thinks both sides have inflated their arguments, but he has not said what he will decide.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting