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Keystone XL will "lock in" more climate pollution than Canada now emits in a decade

Graphic by Barry Saxifrage

I've read at least a hundred major media reports and politicians' speeches on the Keystone XL pipeline. Very few mention what is at the heart of this bitter pipeline battle: "lock in".

Big oil demands it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) warns against it. Climate hawks are fighting tooth and nail to prevent it.

Here is the "lock in" battle in a nutshell:

    Big oil is pushing the Keystone XL pipeline because it will "lock in" 12,000,000,000 barrels of their product. That is 830,000 barrels each day for forty years. It is a massive prize that they are willing to pull out the stops for it. They are pressuring President Obama to proclaim that their huge new forty-year pipeline is in America's "national interest".

    The IEA and others have been warning, with increasing urgency, that humanity is only five years away from "locking in" dire climate impacts and dangerous tipping points. Each new expensive, long-lasting fossil fuel infrastructure project -- like Keystone XL – commits humanity to decades more of climate pollution. The essential climate fight in the next few years is to stop the expansion of these big, expensive, long-lasting fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Business as usual, according to the IEA is locking in a climate "catastrophe".

    Climate activists are fighting Keystone XL because it will "lock in" 7,000,000,000 tonnes of climate pollution. That is more than the world's ninth worst climate polluting nation – Canada – will emit in a decade. It is more than nations like Portugal, Sweden or Ireland will emit in a century. In fact there are 160 nations that emit less climate pollution each year than Keystone XL will pump out. Climate hawks are pulling out the stops to prevent a flick of the pen by President Obama from "locking in" forty years of such massive climate pollution emissions.

One of the world's top climate expert, Dr. James Hansen, a longtime NASA scientist, highlights this struggle in his recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece (emphasis added):

Keystone XL is "a big spigot that will hitch our country to one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth for 40 years or more ... Not only is it a bad marriage but a long one

Nobody wants to be forced, come "hell and high water," into what they believe will be a forty-year abusive relationship. So it should come as no surprise to the media and politicians that climate activists are fighting so hard to avoid being locked into this one.

This is especially true considering the U.S. State Department's report shows the Keystone XL pipeline isn't even a critical project for the US. The report shows America can gain the same short term economic benefits (jobs and oil supply) without "locking in" forty years of long-term climate damages. Keystone XL is purely discretionary.

The symbolic power of Keystone XL decision

On top of the large physical impacts, the Keystone XL decision will also carry large symbolic impacts that will ripple around the world.

That is because President Obama's Keystone XL decision isn't a simple "yes" or "no" to a pipeline. Far from it. His decision is also an official proclamation of America's "national interest" as it weighs fossil fuel expansion against the climate pollution that comes with it.

An Obama "yes" will make clear that dirty energy expansion in America – even when not critical to the nation's energy needs -- still trumps the threat of "locking in" dangerous climate changes. Say hello to 4 C misery, kids.

In addition, giving the pipeline a "national interest" seal of approval will make later attempts to unwind its climate pollution flows extremely difficult. The oil sands industry, the pipeline companies and the refineries will all say they committed billions of dollars based on the President certifying that it was in America's national interest that they do so.

On the other hand, an Obama "no" will carry just as much symbolic impact in the opposite direction. America will be saying that the threat of "locking in" dangerous climate changes finally needs to be taken seriously.

Dr. Hansen's nicely summed up the symbolic impact of the decision as well:

The science on climate change has been in for a quarter of a century. There are no more mixed messages, just catastrophe after catastrophe. The president stands at a fork in the road: Rejecting the pipeline will show the world we are serious and determined to be on the right side of history. Approving it will signal we are too entrenched with business-as-usual to do what's right by the people, planet and future generations.

The world in 2050?

One more way to appreciate the how large and long Keystone XL's climate pollution "lock in" would be is to consider the world in 2050. By 2050 most of the industrialized nations will have needed to reduce climate emissions by 80% already. Obama will be pushing 90. His girls will be as old as he is today. And yet Keystone XL will still have several more years, and a half a billion tonnes of climate pollution, still in the pipeline.

Whatever President Obama decides, his Keystone XL choice will help shape the future of our climate.

The stakes are huge. His decision is expected in a few months.

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