January 31, 2014
Dear President Obama,
I campaigned for you in the primaries and general election of 2008, write about the economics of climate change, work in the area of energy efficiency and renewable energy, and am a climate activist in Northern California. I am writing you to appeal to your highest ethical values and best understanding of scientific reality to deny approval to the Keystone XL pipeline project as well as deny approval to retrofits and new construction of other cross-border pipelines, such as the Alberta Clipper line which will enable more economical exploitation of the Albertan tar sands oil deposits. The Albertan tar sands were described by the climate scientist James Hansen as the largest “carbon bomb” still untapped by the fossil fuel industry, which if exploited mean “game over” for a climate hospitable to human beings and our civilization.
In your State of the Union address this week, you have showed yourself to be perhaps of “two minds” with regard to action on climate change. On the one hand, you made a brief statement which affirmed that “Climate change is a fact”. Furthermore you touched upon the intergenerational challenge: “And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
Yet in the same speech you spent more time touting your Administration’s “all of the above” energy plan, which does not categorically distinguish between non-polluting renewable energy and polluting sources of energy like oil and natural gas. You based your enthusiasm for “all of the above” on the chimera of “energy independence” when it comes to fossil fuel extraction, ignoring the role of international markets in determining where oil and increasingly natural gas is consumed, no matter where it is extracted. Your focus was most intently upon natural gas, the climate impacts of which are much larger than we currently estimate due to the problem of fugitive methane from fracking and gas distribution networks.
A cynic reading your speech might come to the conclusion that you were a President with a primary allegiance to the oil and gas industry, who used some throwaway remarks about climate change, energy efficiency, and renewable energy as political cover against criticism of your energy policy…that you were a President who did not sincerely care about the world in which his children and his children’s children lived. I hope this is not the case.
It would appear, given the contents of the State Department EIS released today, that you are surrounded or you have surrounded yourself with government contractors and officials who are enablers of our country’s and our world’s catastrophic, in the words of your predecessor in office, “addiction to oil” and other fossil fuels. That report, which severely underestimates the climate impacts of tar sands exploitation enabled by the pipeline as well as the economic importance of the pipeline, was produced by a firm that has direct ties to TransCanada, the builder of the pipeline, and other oil and gas industry players. For each gallon of tar sands oil produced, approximately 70-110% more greenhouse gases are emitted “well to tank” than for a conventionally produced gallon of gasoline. The KXL pipeline is the object of such intense lobbying by the Canadian government and the oil industry because it will in fact have a critical role in reducing the costs of and therefore the extent of exploitation of the tar sands. The oil industry-tainted report has every appearance of a short-sighted means to “grease the skids” for you to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
You may, in thinking about this decision, be attending to the swirling political world surrounding you, in particular the deranged bleating of Republicans in the House who are denying climate change and mouthing the macho-sounding creed of “drill, baby, drill”. But, as you know, their denial of science and, in many cases, of objective reality, has a correlate in their enthusiasm for gouging the earth for fossil fuels: this practice has to stop for us to face the climate challenge. Leaving fossil fuels in the earth is one of the hard choices facing us, which many of your nominal political opponents on the GOP side, in their bluster, are not men and women enough to make.
So, of whatever mind you are and whatever the content of your character, it is actually up to you to, in this critical period of climate disruption, to ignite or not ignite the tar sands carbon bomb. Through your work, through a little bit of my work and the work of tens of thousands of others you have ended up in the position to make fateful decisions about the future of humanity. The decisions have not been already made by other people, the decisions are in fact on or soon to be appear on your desk.
So returning to the intergenerational challenge that you are well aware of, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will be an objective failure of that challenge on your part: you will have not done all you could to prevent the climate from turning bad (or worse) for your children and grandchildren. I would wish that there were more “play” in this for you and for us as a generation but there isn’t: our choices are stark and you currently have enormous latitude to make the most decisive choices.
The question is, do you want Sasha and Malia, or their children looking at you with reproachful eyes or even challenging openly with ample justification your commitment to their well-being and the well-being of their friends? On Keystone XL, the choice is very clear and it is yours.
Hopeful of wise decisions on energy and climate now and in the future,
Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.