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Obama's Greenish Moment: Delaying Keystone XL

Before generating headlines for sexual harassment allegations and confounding campaign videos, Herman Cain was primarily known as the candidate who said this about the OWS protests: “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself...
November 15, 2011, 4:20pm

Before generating headlines for sexual harassment allegations and confounding campaign videos, Herman Cain was primarily known as the candidate who said this about the OWS protests: "If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."

During a Republican debate, when he was asked if he really thought everyone out of work in America had only their laziness to blame, he shifted his position and explained that he was merely talking about the shiftless slobs protesting at OWS, "They might be frustrated with Wall Street and the bankers, but they’re directing their anger at the wrong place… They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration."

Two Sundays ago, over 12,000 people did, indeed, occupy the area surrounding the White House, although we can assume Cain, along with most of the Republican candidates, missed it on account of the fact it concerned the environment. The protestors created a circle around the White House to demand that Obama block the XL Keystone pipeline extension.

At this point, you have probably heard the gory details. The TransCanada corporation is trying to extend the Keystone Pipeline System in order to transport synthetic crude oil from Alberta's oil sands to the Gulf Coast. The Keystone extension would run through the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides millions of people with drinking water, and a leak would be disastrous. Leaks come with the territory when you are talking pipelines, last year a hole (which was the size of a quarter) resulted in 33,000 gallons of oil being dumped in a Salt Lake City creek. A month before that, a leak in the Trans-Alaska pipeline resulted in thousands of gallons ending up near Fairbanks, Alaska.

These are potential scenarios if something goes wrong but more alarming dangers may occur if everything goes right. NASA's James Hansen declares that it could be "game over" for the climate, if Alberta's tar sands are completely subjugated, referring to it as "the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet." In a recent interview Jansen explained, "If released all at once, the known tar sands resource is equivalent to 150 parts per million. As is the case with other fossil fuel sources, the amount in the air declines to about 20 percent after 1,000 years…what makes [the pipeline] particularly odious is that the energy you get out in the end, per unit carbon dioxide, is poor. It’s equivalent to burning coal in your automobile. We simply cannot be that stupid if we want to preserve a planet for our children and grandchildren."

The protest was about more the environment. It was about the deep connection between money and politics, precisely the kind of thing the occupiers of Wall Street are trying to bring attention to. For starters, the group running the study on the pipeline's environmental impact was suggested by TransCanada, the company that is seeking to construct the pipeline. The State Department allowed TransCanada to play a substantial role in the selection. The contractor Cardno Entrix was picked. They indentify TransCanada as a "major client."

This glaring conflict of interest prompted Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.), Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) and Ron Wyden (D-OR.) to write a letter to Secretary of State Clinton expressing concerns, "We find it inappropriate that a contractor with financial ties to TransCanada, which publicly promotes itself by identifying TransCanada as a 'major client', was selected to conduct what is intended to be an objective government review…This is a critically important issue for our environment and the energy future of our country. At a time when all credible scientific evidence and opinion indicate that we are losing the battle against global warming, it is imperative that we have objective environmental assessments of major carbon-dependent energy projects."

And then Broderick Johnson was appointed to the President's reelection campaign. The media made a big deal about Johnson's wife, Michelle Norris, taking a leave of absence from NPR's All Things Considered, citing a potential conflict of interest. Norris was applauded and juxtaposed with "World of Opera" host Lisa Simeone, who made the unpardonable sin of exercising her first-amendment rights, by helping to organize an Occupy event.

Less attention has been paid to the potential conflict of interest with Johnson himself. Before founding the Collins Johnson Group, he worked for the firm Bryan Cave LLP, where one of his biggest clients was TransCanada, the company that is trying to extend the pipeline. TransCanada paid Johnson's former firm $240,000 to lobby for a Presidential permit for the pipeline extension.

There's also the issue of TransCanada’s giant corporate budget, the ability to run spots on channels that don't bother to cover things like 12,000 people encircling the White House. In these commercials, TransCanada insists that the pipeline is just what the depleted economy needs, a project to generate jobs. However, even The Washington Post, not known for sane environmental opinions, thinks the numbers are fuzzy. A recent report in the paper squashes the numbers provided by TransCanada consultant Rick Perryman and cites a Cornell Global Labor Institute report, "suggesting that any jobs stemming from the pipeline's construction could be outweighed by environmental damage it caused, along with a possible rise in Midwest gasoline prices because a new pipeline would divert that region's current oversupply of oil to the Gulf Coast."

The final judgment regarding the pipeline was supposed to be made by the State Department but, last Tuesday, the President announced that he would make the final choice, perhaps sensing the growing frustration of his supporters, and recognizing an opportunity to cash in, electorally, with his beleaguered base.

This opportunity was exploited brilliantly by the administration last week, when they announced that they would hold off a decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election. Regarded by some environmentalists as a win, Obama's choice simply avoids the potential fallout that a green light might bring about, while allowing Obama to campaign on the theory that he is thinking hard about environmental consequences. As Charlie Sheen once told a dissatisfied audience, "Already got your money, dude."

Is there anything to suggest, if reelected, Obama would block the extension? Take a look at the most severe ecological disaster in American history. British Petroleum contributed vast sums of money to the Obama campaign; according to financial disclosure records he's the top recipient of BP PAC over the last twenty years. BP, naturally, saw a return on their investment when he was elected. "We've still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines," the President explained and, with that, BP was given the green light.

Obama was, of course, enthusiastically embraced by the environmental community after his election, perceived as a welcomed departure from the previous administration's "What the fuck is global warming?" variation of environmental policy. This excitement, presumably, explains the free pass he received after the aforementioned calamity. "President Obama is the best environmental president we've had since Teddy Roosevelt," Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope told the press, after the spill.

Have things changed? Judging by the amount of Obama-themed signs at the protest, it seems many still believe there is a dialogue to be had but, drawing on the spirit of the Occupy movement, the resistance to the pipeline reaffirms a faith in the street over a belief in the ballot box. The President has recently made statements about the residents of Nebraska being, justifiably, concerned about the state of their drinking water. However, the President also declared he didn't run for President to help "a bunch of fat cat bankers", then went on to help a bunch of fat cat bankers.

If the President decides to dump the pipeline extension, it is a sensational triumph, a stirring reminder that, despite the current political climate, a grassroots campaign can still influence public policy. If he decides to extend the pipeline, it proves that we all should have worked harder and confirms, yet again, exactly whom the President listens to.

But think of the egregious gamble that the administration is making, beyond these two possible outcomes. If Obama loses the election, he will, presumably, kick the question to a businessman who believes corporations are people, a dark fate that will cement his legacy as a President who reinforced the political values of his predecessor.


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