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Why Obama's Keystone Veto Doesn't Mean Anything for Climate Change

Environmental activists may have killed the pipeline for now, but as the Keystone saga drags on, the root causes of climate change go unchecked.

by Eric Holthaus
Feb 25 2015, 9:10pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday afternoon, as expected, President Obama vetoed a bill that would have authorized the Keystone XL, handing a big win to environmental activists who have made the transnational oil pipeline into a potent flashpoint in the fight over climate change.

The reasons Obama cited were mostly procedural, accusing Congress of trying to circumvent the usual process for trans-border infrastructure. Since the pipeline wasn't out-and-out rejected based on merit, there's a chance it could be brought up again later this year and even ultimately approved by the president. The State Department is still conducting a review that includes an estimate of the pipeline's ultimate impact on the climate. For now, though, the environmental battle that has raged for most of Obama's presidency seems to have finally lost some of its bloodlust.

"This veto is conclusive proof that activism works," May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, a global environmental group leading the campaign to block Keystone XL, said in a statement.

But as climate change activists start to look beyond their Keystone fixation, it's clear that while their efforts may have killed the pipeline, the victory was mostly symbolic. And it came at a cost, sucking up valuable energy that could have been spent pushing for bigger, structural solutions to climate change.

In an editorial after the veto Tuesday, the Washington Post argued as much: "Environmental activists turned what should have been a routine infrastructure question into an existential war," the paper wrote. Instead, they "should have kept their sights higher, on creating a national carbon policy that would reduce demand for dirty fuels, cutting emissions by attacking the root problem." Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced a similar sentiment Wednesday, writing that the Keystone XL has become a "perfect symbol of Washington's dysfunction" and arguing that Obama trade approval of the pipeline for a bilateral climate deal with Canada that more than offsets the pipeline's projected impact.

There are signs that the climate movement is finally getting the message. On Tuesday, just before Obama issued his veto, Democrats in the House of Representatives—flanked by leaders from the environmental movement—began a much more ambitious effort to fight climate change, with the reintroduction of legislation to put an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions.

The bill, introduced by Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, is structured as a "cap-and-dividend" system that would institute a gradually increasing cap on US carbon emissions, auction off carbon-emission permits to fossil-fuel producers, and rebate 100 percent of the proceeds to every American with a Social Security number each quarter.

Of course, hell will freeze over before the current Republican-led Congress takes up a climate-change bill. After all, this is the same Republican-led Congress that, during a series of non-binding votes in the Senate, couldn't bring itself to agree that "human activity significantly contributes to climate change." The new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, is so convinced global warming is a liberal "hoax" that he wrote an entire book about it.

But Van Hollen says he introduced the legislation with an eye on the 2016 presidential race, to try to force the issue into the election debate. "Obviously we're going to push to have it considered, but I think that realistically, this will be an opportunity to rally support around a legislative vehicle to address climate change in what we think ultimately is a way that can gain lots of public support," he said in an interview Wednesday.

"Even if it isn't formally considered in this Congress, it can provide a vehicle for organizing and taking this issue into the presidential election," he explained. "[Republicans] know that once they recognize it for the reality it is they've got to have ideas on how to address it, or else they'll be seen to be totally irresponsible."

Unlike similar proposals, Van Hollen's plan doesn't mandate a specific per-ton price on carbon, instead leaving it up to the markets, and returns the funds collected back to the taxpayer—a distinction the Congressman claims will make the bill more attractive to conservatives. And by limiting the bill's mandate to fossil-fuel producers, Van Hollen estimates that just over 1,000 US entities would be subject to the bill's direct carbon cap, cutting down on the number of carbon-counting bureaucrats the feds would need to hire to carry out the plan.

"This [bill] can provide a comprehensive market-based solution that addresses the concerns about increased costs to consumers," he said, adding that "the costs of inaction are huge."

The proposal won quick praise from environmental activists and the academic community. "It's a decent way of using the money," said Raphael Calel, a UC Berkeley economist who studies the economic impacts of emissions trading. "If you don't like intervention, what is the least interventionist way of dealing with this problem? Just put a price on carbon and let the market figure it out, rather than going in and prescribing what people have to do."

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