The Choice That Will Define Obama's Environmental Legacy

Last month, the State Department released its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline. According to a New York Times article, the report concluded that the pipeline "would not substantially worsen carbon pollution" -- a reading that echoed through environmental and media circles. President Obama had previously stated his decision on whether to approve Keystone would hinge on State's assessment of the project's carbon impacts. So if you accept The Times' assessment, approval seems imminent. So, yes to Keystone -- and thus "game over for the climate," as NASA scientist James Hanson memorably put it?

Not so fast. The conventional reading ignores the more complicated and contradictory aspects of the report, which suggest that Keystone XL's environmental impact can be interpreted in two completely divergent ways -- one as significant impact and the other as insignificant impact.

In June of 2013, President Obama established a benchmark for his decision on the northern leg of Keystone XL when he stated, "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." He left "significantly exacerbate" open to interpretation, and his choice of interpretations of the recent State Department review will decide the fate of the project and his environmental legacy.

On the one hand, the report found that production of tar sands oil releases 17 percent more greenhouse gas than conventional crude oil and that the oil transported by the pipeline would contribute between 1.3 million and 27.4 million metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere annually. The straightforward interpretation of these numbers is that yes, Keystone XL will "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

On the other hand, the State Department argues that whether or not the pipeline is built, the Alberta tar sands will be developed and make it to market; therefore, Keystone XL itself will not "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." Indeed, the reviewers -- who have been criticized for having close ties to TransCanada and the oil industry -- find that not building the pipeline would lead to 28 to 42 percent more greenhouse gas emissions due to tar sands being transported to market by less efficient means, like railroads. Yet, several studies and critics have thrown considerable doubt onto the claim that tar sands development will happen just as fast without Keystone XL. There is a reason that TransCanada named this pipeline "Keystone" -- without it the whole operation could collapse.

Here is the logic the State Department is using: a man murders his neighbor but argues in court that his brother was about to kill the neighbor anyway, so his actions had no bearing on the outcome of the dead neighbor's life. This is an absurd argument that any judge would categorically dismiss because law and morality are predicated on the concept of personal responsibility for one's actions, regardless of what everyone else is doing. State is trying to get away with murder here. No matter how State twists its findings, if the U.S. allows the pipeline to be built, we will be culpable for the carbon pollution caused by the tar sands oil that passes through the pipe. And according to a University of Toronto study released at the beginning of February, this pollution is potentially much higher than U.S. and Canadian government assessments have claimed.

Pipe being laid in Texas in 2012 for the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo Credit: John Fiege/

Currently, President Obama's environmental legacy rests on three policy efforts. The first is his major push to pass a cap-and-trade bill at the beginning of his first term. The effort collapsed in 2009 -- even though the fossil fuel industry practically wrote the Senate version -- representing a major failure of Mr. Obama's attempt to address climate change. Secondly, the president implemented higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, finalized in 2012, which stand as his most notable environmental policy success. Lastly, the president's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy has sought to increase development of alternative, renewable energy sources while simultaneously increasing production of domestic fossil fuel reserves, such as oil and natural gas from fracking and offshore drilling. While the president has made important progress away from our reliance on coal under this plan, critics of the policy claim that the transition to alternative energy will not happen fast enough and that the fossil fuels we are developing currently must stay in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

President Obama's environmental record is mixed, at best, but Keystone XL offers him a unique opportunity to lead the world in bold action toward eliminating carbon pollution and changing the balance of power in the climate crisis. There would certainly be a high political cost to rejecting the pipeline, but that is not a sufficient excuse for a president who cares about his legacy. In the 1960s, President Johnson believed the Democrats would lose the South if the Civil Rights Act passed, but he decided that doing the right thing was more important than doing the politically expedient thing. The Democrats in fact lost the South, but the Civil Rights Act is the crowning achievement of President Johnson's legacy. True leadership is rare in politics, but nevertheless it is what makes history. In this regard, I am encouraged by President Obama's recent commitment with French President François Hollande to provide "leadership to combat climate change."

As The Times piece puts it, State's assessment delivered an "opening for President Obama to approve the politically divisive project." True, but its damning calculation -- that harvesting petroleum from tar sands dumps nearly a fifth more greenhouse gas into the environment than conventional crude--also delivers an opening for Obama to reject the project.

I am currently completing a documentary film, Above All Else, which will have its world premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival, telling the story of the passionate resistance to the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline among an unlikely cast of characters in Texas. If the northern leg is approved, the protests in Texas will pale in comparison to the resistance we will see against construction of the northern leg. Already, more than 77,000 people have signed a "pledge of resistance" to engage in acts of civil disobedience if the northern leg is approved. You can add your voice to the conversation by commenting on the State Department's final environmental review by March 7.

In the words of the old coal miner organizing song: Which side are you on, Mr. President, which side are you on?