Oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. The oil extracted from this area is the product that would travel through the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty

Big decision ahead on Keystone XL

Rome burned while Nero fiddled. The same thing appears to be happening to the United States and, indeed, our planet while we delay and hesitate on climate solutions.

As extreme weather, floods and droughts are becoming the norm around the globe, debate on the reality of the climate crisis is obstructing forward action on climate solutions. This paralysis also enables the continued expansion and development of our existing carbon-based energy model and its ensuing components, including pipelines. This fact is clearly demonstrated by our seemingly perpetual indecisiveness on the building of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In his January 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama said: “…the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, ‘Yes, we did.’”

Let’s not worry at this moment about our children’s children. Let’s look at our children and ask the president to look at his children now. Climate change presents an incredible and exciting opportunity to change the course we are on, but we need to move quickly. Scientists all over the world tell us time is of the essence.

We need an energy revolution with all hands on deck, a Manhattan Project that begins with a retooling of where and how we get our energy. It will create jobs, advance our economy and build a cleaner, safer, more stable world, while at the same time putting us on a path to heal our planet. As Obama said in his nomination acceptance speech, if we are willing to work for it, “We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment…when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” This moment seems to be at hand. The question is: Is the president willing to lead?

Last week, the State Department released it’s final report outlining the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline, and concluded that rejecting the pipeline’s development would not make a significant dent in stalling climate change. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama now face a key decision: by either approving or disapproving this pipeline, they have an opportunity to “stand up and be counted” as seminal figures who help bolster momentum for a renewable energy future.

On Feb. 3, people across the country “stood up” to be counted in protest of the Keystone XL. This one pipeline has become a symbol of the “all of the above energy policy,” from the continued development of fossil fuel resources to building the infrastructure to perpetuate it—a bridge to nowhere.

For me, the Keystone XL struggle is also a personal one. I visited the Alberta oil sands in July of 2011. After what I saw there, it took me just one month later to join a fledging movement in Washington to try to stop what seemed like a done deal at the time, a David vs. Goliath struggle. I took my children with me, to watch me get arrested for the first and, so far, only time in my life. Three months later, with my children and my husband at my side, we once again went to Washington to join hands with thousands of individuals, circling the White House to ask the president to say no to this particular pipeline. My children were with me on Feb. 3 in Union Square in New York City, where Bill McKibben and other leaders of the Climate Movement demanded action on the climate crisis, which includes saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline project in a definitive way.

Building more pipelines and infrastructure only keeps us addicted to fossil fuels, propelling us to a place where scientists tell us we can’t go. We have the capability to power the world with renewable energy now — we just need the political will to move forward.

The recent State Department report on Keystone starts with a flawed assumption: it confines its environmental impact assessments to areas near the pipeline. Highlighting a similar shortcoming, in a January 2014 article in the energy industry publication SNL, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman (FERC) Jon Wellinghoff said that there is no legal basis for regulators to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of shale gas drilling when reviewing a Liquefied Natural Gas export terminal application or other type of natural gas infrastructure filing. “Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, FERC does not have the statutory authority to look at the impacts all the way back down to the wellhead,” he said.

We need our leaders to decisively and thoughtfully come to their own conclusions based on fact and reality. They need to look at the whole picture, taking into account the growing body of scientific evidence on climate change. As it now stands, 97% of scientists studying climate change come to the same conclusion — humans are causing the climate to change, and burning fossil fuels is largely responsible. An environmental impact study that sets its parameters based on just one or two pipelines and a limited geographic area isn’t adequately considering the big picture. 

Will our leaders stand up and be counted? Our children are watching, and our children’s children are calling to us. An amazing, incredible future is within our grasp; we just need to walk through the door and seize it.

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Big decision ahead on Keystone XL