If I had to bet, I’d say Keystone XL will be rejected by Barack Obama.
Extremely cunning, the 44th American president understands all too well the historic implications of such a decision. A rejection of the proposed pipeline linking Alberta’s tar sands with refiners in the U.S. Gulf Coast would prove monumental. The world’s largest economy would essentially be telling the world, “we’re weaning ourselves off oil.” The death of Keystone could mark the birth of a new era devoted to green renewable energy—led by the United States.
A growing segment of America’s elite understands that the nation’s long-term security and economic prosperity would best be centered on renewable, clean, homegrown and cost-effective (once externalities are factored in) sources of energy. A reliance on fossil fuels leaves the United States vulnerable to spikes in the price of oil. An unfinished Arab Spring in the oil-rich Middle East practically guarantees more volatility ahead.
There’s also the fact that oil is essentially a finite resource. Although there are global reserves, they are buried in increasingly hard-to-reach places. Extracting oil from tar sands, the bottom of the ocean and miles below the ground in shale rock (via fracking) has proven costly and dangerous.
With this backdrop in mind, the Obama administration can send a clear signal to the world that the United States is starting the painful but necessary move away from a fossil-fueled based economy. As with the space race in the 20th century, the middle decades of the 21st century could witness a ‘Green Race’ where world powers desperately try to meet the energy demands of their respective economies in a sustainable way. The massive investments the Chinese have undertaken over the past decade in both wind and solar power are a sign of things to come.
From the Henry Fords at the dawn of the 20th century to the Mark Zuckerbergs of today, the United States has been at the forefront of innovation for well over a century . A concerted effort to develop more efficient and groundbreaking technologies in the fields of wind power, hybrid technology, long range electric motors and solar energy would once again place the United States as the innovative forerunner of a Green Revolution. While many of these technologies are in their relative infancies, government subsidies and tax breaks (towards research and development, for instance) could pave the way for U.S. dominance in the world of green technology.
Mind you, there’s always politics. Obama, in his second and final term, wants to be remembered for something grand. American democracy at the moment is dysfunctional and practically paralyzed, due in large part to corporatized legislative process in which members of congress are beholden to their wealthy donors. The rejection of Keystone Pipeline—an executive decision—remains one of the few avenues Obama has left leave his mark on history as a true reformer. “The President who saved the planet”; talk about a moniker.
And while Obama himself might not be up for re-election, in less than 20 months Congressional Democrats and a third of all Senators certainly will be. Environmentalists, a significant portion of the Democratic base, came through for Obama in 2012. He needs to return the favour having largely paid lip service on the issue of climate change until now.
The recent spate of overwhelming weather events may prove to be Barack Obama’s best friend in selling a possible shelving of Keystone to the broader public. Until recently, Americans had grown increasingly sceptical of whether or not climate change existed at all. This was largely due to a corporate-financed campaign of deception, half-truths and hatched-up scandals such as “climategate”. But ferocious super storms, unbearable droughts and unprecedented heat waves may finally have enlightened the American public to the sobering truth: the climate is indeed changing, humans are most likely responsible and we’d better get our acts together fast if we want to live in planet that remains hospitable to our very existence.