The reek of burning boats

Obama’s speech lays down a test the Keystone pipeline cannot meet.

Barack Obama, in yesterday’s big speech on climate change:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

It’s impossible for the pipeline to meet this test honestly. For if it will not increase the sales and hence emissions of Alberta tar sands oil, why would anybody want to build it?

18 months ago I made a rash prediction:

My simple hydraulic model of energy politics predicts that the Keystone XL pipeline will never be approved.

Pity I didn’t back this on Intrade.

Please treat comments as an open thread on the speech. Keystone wasn’t the biggest announcement, which was the confirmation of EPA regulation of of CO2 emissions from coal power stations. The exhortation to “invest, divest” may be equally important as the moment Obama burnt the boats that would allow another centrist tactical retreat. It’s on to Senlac or Mexico.

This once, I’ll allow denialist ventings from our regulars, as long as they don’t derail the thread.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

31 thoughts on “The reek of burning boats”

    1. I’m consoled. Betfair amnd other UK bookies still have books on US politics. Whether US citizens can legally use them is another matter.

  1. And yet …. Obama still has an escape trapdoor for Keystone XL … if it is not approved, you can argue the tar sands extract will be exported by other means so will end up emitting CO2 anyway.

    Still, nice to see at last Obama givng “the big speech on climate change” he has been promising for 5 years or so.

    One thing I have noticed, not being an American – if KXL is approved, the Democrats will p*ss off a whole slew of young activists who would otherwise be canvassing for them in 2016. I hope Obama factors that in.

    1. I agree. Good speech but the question will be how hard Obama pushes for action within the executive branch. Keystone XL will be a big test and its not as clear to me as it is to some people that Obama isn’t going to approve the pipeline. In fact, the ambiguity of the language he used and the way the phrasing mirrored the State Department studies finding a minimal environmental impact suggests that he’s keeping his options open but probably leaning towards approval. That’s certainly the way the speech is being understood by people in the industry and in the Republican Party.

      Also, while I agree it was a good speech, I seemed to have missed the declaration of war against coal. Seemed more like a declaration of mild disapproval.

    2. There are northern and southern portions KXL into and out of Cushing and there are several phases. Steele City NB to Cushing OK is done, and the southern portion from Cushing to Houston and Port Arthur is approved and being constructed. Irrespective of the fate of the northern portions the Cushing bottleneck will be removed.

      So many of the expected jobs are already being filled and the economic impact for the US is in expanding volume out of Cushing. There is only a small US as opposed to Canadian and Chinese ;

      1. “There is only a small US as opposed to Canadian and Chinese benefit to the remainder.”

        I hit the return by accident when someone asked a question.

  2. Intrade is dead. What you should have done was purchase stock in US freight rail companies that already carry oil south from Alberta, since this is a huge boon for them.

    1. This isn’t really on-point, though. The State Department did not find that the “project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution”, to use the president’s words from yesterday’s speech. The State Department essentially acknowledged the carbon emissions problem but said it wasn’t a big deal in their overall assessment of significant environmental impacts. I know that distinction seems trivial but it could be pretty important to the outcome.

      1. I think you are seizing upon a non-existent and trivial distinction. In his speech, Obama used almost the exact formulation as the State Dept so, as a practical matter, he maintained the status quo in which it is assumed that (1) the decision to approve or disapprove the pipeline will be based entirely on political factors and/or the impact on Obama’s ex-presidency and (2) the pipeline will be approved for political reasons and because it is thought to enhance the sort of “pro-business” credentials that are essential to the financially successful ex-presidency that I think Obama wants for himself.

        In any case, the decision about whether the pipeline will be built is totally within Obama’s discretion so if he wasn’t going to approve it, one would have assumed his would have said that in the most important speech of his presidency on the subject of environmentalism and climate change. The fact that he didn’t say the Keystone XL pipeline wasn’t going to be approved during his most important address on the subject supports two conclusions: (1) that Obama will, in fact, approve the pipeline and (2) that he will probably not be prosecuting an actual “war on coal” or acting aggressively on climate change but rather will be hoping that others will somehow translate his words of mild encouragement into concrete action on climate change. But he himself probably will take only the least controversial actions possible and may not defend them with great vigor.

        It was undeniably a really good speech. The fact that he didn’t use the speech as an opportunity to take the one concrete action that is absolutely within his power gives me pause about the strength of his convictions and the risks he’s willing to take in terms of his ex-presidency.

        1. Exactly.

          It’s rather sad, as really, the pro-business take that really has exploding growth opportunities is retrofitting the country for a new power scheme. Just like the ‘internet to every classroom’ fueled a lot of late nineties boom, so too could the government spur growth in completely new markets.

          It’s really sad that he’s staking his future on natural gas and shale, when new markets are where history will be made.

          I weep for all the lost opportunities.

          At the same time, the extent of the vitriol against OMG a black man in the presidency is infuriating. It’s astounding to me that people are opposing policies because they are supported by a black person, not on any merit. If I were him, I’d be taking my wins wherever I could.

          I would not expect a HRC presidency to be any more successful with the current congress, and would be just as beholden to corporate interests, as well as international interests in her husbands economic club.

  3. The funny thing is, the “reek of burning boats” I assumed you were talking of was the ones that would be carrying the oil from Canada to China, which might occasionally founder and burn. But I suppose you feel like pretending the sands will be left there if Keystone is blocked, rather than simply being routed around the US, at lower efficiency, so that more CO2 will be produced for each KWH of energy delivered.

    1. What tends to happen, you may be surprised to learn, is that when something becomes more expensive less of it is sold. The Alberta tar sands aren’t Ghawar.

  4. I thought the reek of burning boats referred to either Julius Caesar or William the Conqueror. Cortez?

    1. Cortez most famously (there are a few others). Julius Caesar is associated with the phrase, “crossing the Rubicon”. When he returned from the invasion of Gaul with his army, they crossed over the Rubicon River in defiance of Roman law. Generals were required to disband their army before crossing into the home provinces.

      I’m not sure if William is associated with any such irrevocable acts.

        1. But the point is the same. Your metaphor seems inapt because Obama didn’t really destroy all possibility of retreat thereby leaving no way but short of victory. He didn’t say, for example, that he had signed or would sign executive orders on the pollution and climate change issues he spoke about and come hell or high water he was going to push them through; merely that somebody should do something and that it was possible that maybe some of the people he has appointed to executive agencies like the EPA might do something that he might approve, that might be helpful in terms of pollution and climate change Or not.

          I understand Obama not the Green Lantern or LBJ or anything like that but this is not exactly the bold “taking off the gloves” exercise of presidential power we’d been led to expect. This is all stuff that he can do on his own say so, without Congress or anybody else. So while I’m prepared to keep an open mind and I am hoping for the best, I’m a bit skeptical about how hard Obama is going to push and the risks he’s going to take in order to dislodge the powerful political and economic interests that have so far been able to block all progress during his administration.

        2. Cortez knew the Aztecs did not have a navy, but William knew Harold and the English had a bloody good navy, unluckily for the English temporarily withdrawn. William would have been reckless to destroy his own ships before gaining some intelligence of Harold’s intentions. And despite his gamble of invading England, William was not a reckless man. Military historians generally agree that if Harold avoided a pitched battle and blockaded the Normans on the south coast, he would probably have brought William to his knees.

          To me, Obama is more like Francis Drake calmly playing bowls as the Spanish Armada hove into view. You just hope he has time to finish his game and beat climate change as well.

          1. Or he could be seen as Nero, fiddling as Rome burns. Perhaps the truth depends on clarity of vision. Obviously, I think your vision is obscured by your commitment to the man rather than to the goal of saving the planet.

            In either case, the premise of Wimberley’s argument that we know Obama has committed himself and the Democrats irrevocably to the fight against climate charge because his speech “burned his boats” and so there can be nothing except victory or death is false, as you seem to acknowledge here and as Wimberley himself has hinted at in his followups.

            From my perspective, Obama gave another really good speech. But lacking in specifics. And achieving results will depend not on speechifying but on how hard Obama is prepared to fight and how much of his own ex-presidency he’s prepared to risk. Like everything else about the man, it’s a question mark wrapped up in a Rorschach test.

    2. AFAIK the original reference to burning boats in western culture is in the Illiad– the Greeks burn their boats on the shores of Turkey to commit themselves to taking Troy and recovering Helen.

      The first historical usage was then Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire (again, on a Turkish shore), and quite clear that Alexander was making a reference to the Illiad, a story all Greeks would have known. Saying to his men ‘we, we are like the Greeks in the Trojan War’.

  5. Damn,here I was all prepared to eat plates full of crow for attacking Obama’s pusillanimous compromising on just about everything after reading the transcript of his energy speech. Now after the above rather pessimistic commentaries on what he actually means as opposed to what he actually said, I guess I’ll have to put my crow back in the freezer. Sorry Barack. Maybe next time.

  6. A question to my sceptical commenters. If Obama was really just packaging politics as usual in the fine rhetoric he’s so good at, why did he encourage his young listeners to become environmental activists and hold politicians, including himself, to account? If he plans to disappoint them, better say “trust me and my team of technocrats”, or “my hands are tied by the law”. It sounds to me as if he wants McKibben’s protests, a popular wave he can surf to a greener shore.

    1. Two points:

      First, my perception is that Obama has done this same trick before (indeed, continually) with his speechifying. He regularly exhorts his listeners to “make him” do something but as we’ve seen during his presidency, there isn’t any realistic way to make Obama do anything he doesn’t want to do and it’s seems quite clear that unless faced with the loss of his presidency, he does what he wants to do. That is to say, I personally perceive a serious disconnect between Obama’s speechifying and the policies he actually pursues.

      Second, one can turn your question back upon itself and ask (as I did above) why he didn’t announce specific decisions he could have made and or announce specific policies that he would be vigorously pursuing? The Keystone XL pipeline being one such example of a policy which will be decided by Obama himself and which would have impressed by friend and foe alike with his determination. As things stand now, there’s sure to be the usual Village temporizing and floating of trial balloons. Tepid policies will be leaked or announced by agencies and meet by fierce Republican and business opposition and then we will see who among Obama and the Democrats turns tale and runs and who stands tall.

      1. It’s a possible reading, just. Obama is planning to approve Keystone and blame the students for not rioting enough? That will bring themout in droves for GOTV next year and in 2016.

        On the question why he didn’t just amnnounce a decision against Keystone, the law lays down a review process that is not complete. Waiting is not just good politics – climate denialism is shrinking in the face of experience more than science – but good governance. He’d be attacked, with some justice, for imperial executive overreach if he announced now

        Ed Markey was elected yesterday to replace Kerry in the Senate, and he’s even more of a climate hawk than Kerry. Straw in the wind.

        Let me try another Machiavellian theory on you: Obama doesn;t care much about climate change and is content to go down in history with an “at least I tried” judgement. But he does care a lot about his one great domestic achievement, Obamacare. Launching a war on coal, whether it wins or not, is a red rag tactic to distract Tea Party rage from his core priority.

        1. Looks to me like belief in global warming belief is rebounding from a low point a few years back. Kinda ironic in as much as the warming hiatus hasn’t ended, and there are signs a “Maunder minimum” such as apparently caused the little ice age might be in the works.

          But this is mostly driven by pr, the percentage of the population that actually understands the arguments is miniscule. On both sides, as is frequently demonstrated in the arguments online.

          1. The Maunder Minimum! That flogged-a-million-times-over-dead horse! Hahahahahahahah James is indeed correct. You provide an excellent example of what you talk about in your second paragraph.

        2. I have no idea what’s in Obama’s mind and since he doesn’t seem to have any particular political beliefs, there’s really nothing with which to gauge the likelihood of his pushing for anything he talked about in his speech. You also seem to think that Obama has his eye on the 2014 and 2016 elections. But beyond a sort of vague affinity with the Democratic Party, Obama loyalty has mainly been to himself and not to the party. And that is ever more clear when one looks at the careerists with whom he has surrounded himself.

          As to the Keystone review process, if it isn’t complete, that’s only because Obama hasn’t decided what he wants to do. I don’t think he started writing this speech over the last weekend so there was plenty of time for him to tie up any loose ends if he’d wanted to announce a decision. This isn’t a regulatory decision like an EPA rule; the timing of events is up to the White House and the substantive decision itself is an entirely discretionary choice for the administration.

          And, as I said earlier, this is actually a pattern with Obama. He gives great speeches but they seem to be disconnected from the politics and policies he actually pursues. Also, speaking only for myself, I have a sense of “Obama speech fatigue” that partly comes because the huge buildups from his fans never quite meet what I see as the reality (for example, you and Mark see a “war against coal” while I and others see platitudes and some mild disapproval of coal).

  7. For if it will not increase the sales and hence emissions of Alberta tar sands oil, why would anybody want to build it?

    There is the possibility that Alberta oil could obtain a higher *price* on the world market than on the continental one without necessarily implying a higher quantity of sales.

    The logic would be that Americans would pay more for energy, which of course they should, but which isn’t something any American politician is going to say.

    1. This is true but both the “domestic” and international market prices will obviously depend on whether the buyers and sellers of Alberta tar sands oil are forced to pay the external costs associated with the production of their product or whether they can make others bear them instead. From what I’ve seen, if costs such as health and environmental/economic costs (including, for example, loss to tourist industries or fishermen)are paid by the producers and/or the buyers then it seems very likely that Alberta tar sands will be uneconomical to produce. Also, if the Alberta government stops subsidizing production of oil from the tar sands, it will also be uneconomical to produce the oil. Therefore, I believe that an important part of opposing this project is to point out the extent to which the oil producers have used their influence to reap huge rewards whilst sticking the people of Canada and the USA with the real, unaffordable costs of extracting this oil.

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