Obama Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline: A Symbolic Victory for Environmentalists, or Something More Substantial?

By: Marjorie Howard ’16, Environmental Leadership Participant

The construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a 1,179-mile-long pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska, has been the subject of heated debate for the majority of President Obama’s time in office.  The debate generates strong opposition from environmentalists and strong support from those who believe the pipeline would enable the U.S. to increase its energy independence while also creating jobs and boosting the economy. On Friday, November 6th, President Obama rejected the proposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, marking a step in the direction of environmentally conscious policy. While preventing one pipeline construction project from taking place is only a small step in addressing the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, the symbolic nature of this decision is important on a larger scale.

President Obama discussed this, saying that the pipeline “has become a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter…this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.” Nevertheless, the decision he made to reject the pipeline granted environmental advocates a symbolic victory, and reaffirmed his administration’s goal to curb climate change, especially during his last year in office.

Obama cited the United States’ role as a global leader in climate change mitigation as one of the major reasons behind the rejection of the pipeline. This has particular relevance to the upcoming United Nations climate change summit in Paris, where world leaders will gather in December to discuss limitations on greenhouse gas emissions.

President and CEO Russ Girling of TransCanada, the company responsible for construction of the pipeline, made the following comment on the pipeline’s rejection: “We are disappointed with the President’s decision to deny the Keystone XL application. Today, misplaced symbolism was chosen over merit and science—rhetoric won out over reason.” Environmental advocates, however, argue that science was a prominent part of the decision to reject the pipeline. The Canadian tar sands oil that would have been extracted for transport in this project is carbon-intensive, and the pipeline would expand to the availability of fossil fuels for consumption, thereby contributing to global warming.

Though the rejection of Keystone pipeline in itself will not cause a substantial reduction in emissions, the decision has the potential to lead to the development of cleaner energy sources and the prevention of similar projects in the future. If the U.S. can encourage other nations to take similar actions, this symbolic decision may result in some substantial change.