No one can question Michael Bloomberg’s climate change bona fides. As mayor of New York, he declared that cities had to lead the way in reducing the threat of climate change, and he strove to make New York greener. He has donated millions of dollars to the effort to shut down coal-fired power plants. He endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012 primarily because the president, he said, “has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption.” Most recently, he was named the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for cities and climate change.
Bloomberg is also a supremely pragmatic man, who prides himself on not letting ideology get in the way of finding practical solutions to difficult problems. Thus it was that earlier this week – after Obama vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have forced him to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline – Bloomberg wrote an article for Bloomberg View, his media company’s opinion publication, proposing an idea for breaking the logjam over the pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
His says the Obama administration should negotiate directly with the Canadian government, and come up with a climate pact that would more than offset the emissions that would be generated – are already being generated – by mining the oil from the sands. Though it is unlikely to satisfy partisans on both sides, it is a wonderfully sensible solution.
“Keystone has become irrationally significant,” Bloomberg told me. “Environmentalists overstate the danger of the pipeline to the environment,” he continued, “while those who say the economics would be significant are overstating as well.”
Bloomberg believes we would all be better off if we stripped the pipeline of its symbolism and dealt with it more realistically.
Many in the environmental movement have taken the position that building Keystone – and thus allowing for increased production of tar sands oil – would be ruinous for the planet. Not only would it further the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, but, if it enabled the full exploitation of the tar sands, it would emit so much carbon that it would be “game over” for the planet, in the memorable words of James Hansen, an anti-Keystone scientist. These claims are wildly overstated. The Canadian government likes to note that, in 2012, eight states, starting with Texas, had higher emissions from their coal-fired power plants than Canada did from its oil sands. And transporting oil by train, as is now being done, is far more dangerous than sending it through a state-of-the-art pipeline.
At the same time, the Republicans who want to use Obama’s veto as a symbol that he is willing to forgo good jobs to please his environmental supporters are equally wrongheaded. Most of the American jobs related to Keystone would involve building the pipeline. Once it was up and running, the number of new jobs it would create would be minimal.
There is a third entity for whom Keystone has become a symbol: the conservative government of Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, which has pushed for approval of the pipeline by the United States with an urgency that has sometimes felt like desperation. In 2011, Harper said approval of the pipeline should be a “no brainer” for the U.S. Canadian officials have threatened that if the U.S. doesn’t approve the pipeline, the oil would likely go to China instead. And it has treated Obama’s reluctance to make a decision on the pipeline as a reflection of American-Canadian relations, rather than what it is: an issue of American politics. There are many Canadians who believe the Harper government has badly mishandled the Keystone issue.
At the same time, Harper’s government has not exactly been leading the climate change charge. His administration pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocols, the landmark 1997 agreement that committed countries that signed on to mandatory emissions reductions. “We are known around the world as being climate-change obstructionists,” said Peter McKenna, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island. “Harper always equates getting serious about climate change as having a negative effect on the Canadian economy.”
It is this state of affairs that Bloomberg seeks to exploit. Late last year, the Obama administration announced a climate change agreement with China, which commits both parties to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. Because Harper so badly wants the Keystone pipeline to be approved, the U.S. government has tremendous leverage, says Bloomberg, to cut the same kind of deal with Canada. After which, the president could approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline with a clear conscience, knowing that he had mitigated the worst of its effects on the planet.
Pragmatism, for a change, would upend ideology, and we could finally stop talking about this fractious pipeline.
The New York Times