To environmentalists throughout the country, denying the Keystone XL oil pipeline would be the most important sign that President Obama is committed to combating global warming.
To people close to Obama, the pipeline is not nearly that important, and they think the debate surrounding it is overblown, if not misplaced. In interviews with National Journal Daily, people who have advised Obama over the years, including former White House aides, downplayed the effect the pipeline would have on climate change or much of anything really, besides politics.
“It’s important we focus on things that make the biggest difference in terms of global climate change and do the most to actually reduce carbon emissions, like economy-wide carbon policy or use of the Clean Air Act,” said Jason Bordoff, who left the White House this January after advising Obama on energy and climate issues in senior policy positions since April 2009. “I don’t know how much building or not building one pipeline is going to affect either how much oil is produced in Canada or in global greenhouse-gas emissions.” Bordoff now heads up Columbia University’s new Center on Global Energy Policy.
A relatively small but loud contingent of environmental groups, led by 350.org and the Sierra Club, has harnessed the 1,700-mile, Alberta-to-Texas pipeline as their rallying cry to fight global warming. The type of oil the pipeline would move—extracted from formations called oil sands—has a heavier carbon footprint than most oil drilled in other parts of the world. This issue is so important to the Sierra Club that the group, one of the oldest and largest environmental organizations in the world, announced earlier this year it was for the first time in its 120-year history lifting its policy against civil disobedience to hold a massive protest against the pipeline in Washington, in partnership with 350.org.
“Individual decisions in and of themselves are not that important,” said Joseph Aldy, who worked on energy and climate issues in the White House for the first two years of Obama’s presidency. “If oil is $100 a barrel, Alberta will find a way to get the oil out.”
Aldy’s comment isn’t far from what then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in October 2010, several months before environmentalists had succeeded in making the Keystone XL pipeline a political lightning rod in the 2012 presidential election. The State Department must approve any transcontinental energy project like Keystone.
"We're either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the [Persian] Gulf or dirty oil from Canada," Clinton said during an event in San Francisco, according to media reports at the time. “We're not yet signed off on it. But we are inclined to do so.”
In fact, when Aldy and Bordoff were in the White House and Clinton was in her first year as secretary of State, the administration approved in August 2009 a pipeline similar to the Keystone XL project in two key ways: It’s 1,000 miles long and moves carbon-heavy oil sands from Alberta to Wisconsin.
“We already approved one [such] pipeline when I was in the White House,” Aldy said. “It happened before. It’s going to come up again.”
He added, though, that environmentalists are forcing a debate that helps bring climate change to the front burner. “It’s trying to focus attention in the media and in the public sphere about doing something on climate change,” Aldy said. “I think there is a real value to this debate.”
Aldy and Bordoff are now saying publicly what many Democratic energy and climate advisers have said more privately over the past couple of years: The Keystone XL pipeline is not that big of a deal.
“We are essentially jamming our national energy policy debate through a 30-inch pipe. It’s an unfortunately narrow space, and the tone and quality of the discussion reflects the constraint,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who has advised Obama on energy and climate issues and is close with the administration. "In the absence of a more meaningful energy-policy discussion, Keystone has become a symbolic referendum for a much larger set of issues.”
Environmentalists have been so successful at making the pipeline a referendum on Obama’s commitment to global warming that people on both sides of this issue are now genuinely unsure whether he will approve the pipeline, a decision that’s expected to come in late summer or fall.
Administration officials are careful to avoid direct answers about the pipeline and instead trot out talking points about the official regulatory review process for the project. Given the administration's reticence, the views of Obama's former advisers offer a glimpse into what the president may be thinking.
The environmentalists leading the charge against the pipeline dismiss the comments from Obama confidantes that downplay the pipeline’s impact.
“Obama's guys hate Keystone because they know he's exposed,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. “It’s the one place where he can't blame his climate weakness and inactivity on Congress, since Congress has nothing to do with it.”
One notably high-profile former Obama adviser whose position differs from the several people interviewed both on and off the record for this article is Carol Browner. Browner was Obama’s top energy and climate adviser until she left in January 2011.
"Until we do have a climate policy, the idea that we should be supportive of a pipeline that will increase greenhouse-gas emissions is deeply troubling," Browner said at an energy forum in November 2011, according to a Reuters article.
She hasn’t publicly commented on the pipeline since then, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.