Obama admits his rejection of Keystone is symbolic, but argues it is also crucial by Steve LeVine

US president Barack Obama today squashed a politics-riven, seven-year quest by Transcanada to build a 1,100-mile pipeline and ship hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of Canadian oil through the US to the global market.

In doing so, Obama all-but explicitly conceded that, after so many years of study, his decision to reject construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline is a symbolic one-—huge volumes of oil, including from the Alberta oil sands, will continue to be shipped and consumed. In addition, if Republicans win the White House in 2016, they are likely to reverse the decision.

But Obama cast the symbolism as vital. He said that the US has now cut its CO2 emissions more than any nation on Earth—it’s still the second-largest emitter, after China—and is now “leading on climate change.”

“Frankly,” he added, if Keystone proceeded, it “would have undercut that global leadership.”

Obama was referring to his hopes for a global meeting on Nov. 30 in Paris, in which world leaders will attempt to agree on binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.


The Keystone decision represents a clear victory for determined American environmentalists who had framed the pipeline in apocalyptic terms. If it were built, said James Hansen, a NASA scientist, it would be “game over for the climate.” Celebrities such as actress Darryl Hannah (pictured above) set themselves up for arrest in front of the White House in anti-Keystone protests.

Yet in a big way, Keystone is an old story: by this time last year, the oil, rail and pipeline industries had already built work-arounds to ship almost all the 830,000 barrels a day of oil that Keystone was meant to handle.

Its demise was always going to be, at best, symbolic: it does not attempt to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, only its transportation. That will happen when more public, political and economic forces get behind the optimization of alternative, cleaner ways to propel the voracious global economy, such as safer nuclear and cheaper batteries.


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