Why Europe should not wait for Obama to stop tar sands

25 February 2015

The Keystone XL pipeline has become a hot political topic in the United States, but it's also important for Europe and the rest of the world, writes Friends of the Earth Europe's extractives campaigner, Colin Roche.

In the United States a relatively obscure oil pipeline is at the centre of a heated political debate and the first battle between President Barack Obama and the new Republican-controlled Congress. But it's not just a fight to be fought in Washington. The outcome matters in Europe and the rest of the world too.

Yesterday President Obama vetoed a bill passed by the now Republican-controlled US Congress to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Obama vetoed that bill in favour of letting the existing approval process to run its course – a process that also ends at the White House. The final decision is expected sometime in the coming weeks or months.

Now, after using only the third veto of his Presidency to block the bill, hopes are high that Obama will block Keystone itself.
The Keystone XL pipeline has become a touchstone of US energy politics and a test of Obama's commitment to tackle climate change.

The reason that should be so lies about 4,000 km to the North West, in Canada. The Keystone XL pipeline is designed to bring oil from the vast tar sands deposits of the Canadian province of Alberta, to oil refineries based on the US Gulf Coast. Currently, Canada has to rely on expensive rail and barge transport to get tar sands oil to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

This tar sands oil is some of the dirtiest and most polluting fuel on the planet. Aside from the local effects of pollution, deforestation and impacts on first nations communities, tar sands represent the frontier of climate change destruction. Emitting more carbon by far than conventional oil the vast tar sands deposits represent a grave threat to the climate.

As noted climate scientist James Hansen has said, the exploitation of the Canadian tar sands will be 'game over for the climate'. A recent University College London study has estimated that a minimum of 85 per cent of tar sands reserves must stay in the ground if we are to stay within the 2 degrees Celsius of global warming limit world governments have committed to. (Of course 2 degrees is not a safe limit, merely an arbitrary one based on what is deemed politically feasible).

But the impact of the Keystone decision reaches beyond the shores of the United States. Asia and Europe are planned destinations for the tar sands. According to a report by the US-based National Resource Defence Council, KeystoneXL and other pipeline projects such as Energy East will allow for the export of 700,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day to Europe by 2020 – this is equivalent to an extra 6 million cars on Europe's roads by 2020.

The Canadian and the US governments, urged on by the oil industry, have pushed Europe not to implement regulations which would discourage tar sands imports. The Canadians conducted an extensive, multi-year lobbying and public relations campaign to push back EU climate action and both Canada and the US have used trade deals as leverage in their lobbying efforts.

These efforts were successful. Late last year the EU overturned proposed rules discouraging tar sands, after earlier dropping any efforts to reduce emissions from transport fuel after 2020. In a year when the Canadian government will probably come empty handed to crunch climate talks in Paris, the European Union has given it a pass on its climate destruction.

Now Europe has to rely on Barrack Obama to prevent it from aiding and abetting Canada's climate negligence. If we're lucky, President Obama will block Keystone XL and buy us time to fix the problem. But Europe shouldn't be waiting. It's time to act and stop tar sands heading this way.