Under pressure from Congress to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, planned to connect Canada’s tar sands region with the U.S. Gulf Coast, the Obama administration has decided to reject the pipeline proposal.
“This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline” that did not allow enough time to finish the environmental impact assessment, said President Obama. Republicans who supported the pipeline say they will continue to fight for it, and have asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify before Congress on the decision.
The company that wanted to build the pipeline, TransCanada, said earlier this week it was moving ahead with its plans despite the political wrangling. Also, the government of Alberta, the province at the center of Canada’s tar sands activity, had been urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ignore greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when evaluating the pipeline, according to newly released documents.
But with the decision issued by the U.S. State Department, now the company will have to start over and reapply, and the government might not offer an expedited review. TransCanada may reapply within weeks proposing a new route avoiding Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region, above a portion of the vast Ogallala Aquifer.
Obama reportedly called Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to explain his decision, and Harper said he hoped the pipeline would eventually be approved. Harper is also supporting another pipeline to Canada’s Pacific coast that would facilitate exports to Asia, in particular to China. However, pipeline approval is more difficult in Canada than the U.S., and there is considerable opposition to a Pacific pipeline, a Reuters analyst said.
However other commentators—even those who took the decision as good news—argued it won’t stop Canada’s tar sands from flowing, and thus won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Others called the decision “a gift” to the GOP.
Shale Gas Versus Alternatives
Although world oil prices and U.S. gasoline prices were at all-time highs in 2011, in the U.S. natural gas prices have been plummeting, reaching their lowest in a decade in a “classic case of oversupply.” The price has dropped lately because of a mild winter requiring less heating, a boon to consumers and businesses; the longer trend has been driven by the advent of shale gas drilling techniques, which now account for about a quarter of U.S. natural gas production.
There has been limited shale gas development outside the U.S., and prices in most of the rest of the world have remained much higher.
Although several years ago the U.S. was planning to import large amounts of liquefied natural gas and built ports to receive it in tankers, now the country is considering exporting natural gas. But such a move would have wide-ranging impacts that are difficult to unravel, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution; the U.S. Energy Information Administration said exporting natural gas would likely push domestic prices up.
And an MIT study simulated the impacts a steady supply of cheap shale gas would likely have on the U.S. economy and found it would in many ways benefit the economy over the next couple of decades, but that it could boost greenhouse gas emissions and stunt the growth of renewable energy and other alternatives.
Renewables Reach New High
Global investment in renewable energy hit a new record in 2011, reaching $260 billion, up 5 percent from 2010. Wind investment fell 17 percent from 2010, while solar investment grew by a third, so spending on solar was twice the spending on wind. The growth of solar was attributed in large part to plummeting photovoltaic panel prices.
Meanwhile, manufacturers of both solar panels and wind turbines are being squeezed by oversupply, leaving them with low profit margins.
In the U.S., renewables investment grew by a third, to $56 billion, helping the U.S. to reclaim the title of world’s biggest clean energy investor. However, in 2011 the country also saw the end of “green stimulus” money and federal loan guarantees, and its Production Tax Credit will end at the close of 2012, so future investment onward may drop unless new support for renewables is brought in.
With the drop in wind energy investment, Vestas, the world’s largest turbine manufacturer, is laying off more than 2,000 employees globally, about 10 percent of its workforce. It said it may layoff another 1,600 in the U.S. if the Production Tax Credit is not extended.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court shot down a global warming lawsuit several states and environmental groups had brought against five of America’s biggest utilities, responsible for about one-tenth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The case was aimed at getting the court to rule greenhouse gas emissions a public nuisance and order the defendants to reduce them. But the court said Congress had already authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to handle greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, concluding: “We see no room for a parallel track.”
The new decision bolstered the court’s 2007 decision, in which it ruled the EPA does have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as well as traditional pollutants, like smog and particulate matter.
After the new decision, the door is still open for environmental nuisance suits in general, and potentially even for state-level nuisance suits on greenhouse gases, noted Yale law professor Douglas Kysar. And, he pointed out, if Congress strips the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases—as some recent bills attempted to do—then the nuisance suits on a federal level could return.
In the Spotlight
The new ruling “puts the spotlight squarely on EPA,” said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Recently, the agency has issued new rules on emissions from light-duty vehicles and is moving forward on similar rules for larger vehicles. It is also developing its regulations on power plant emissions, which were scheduled to be published in draft form in late July, but have now been pushed back two months in response to complaints from industry and state governments.
Meanwhile, a study by nonprofit group Media Matters found opponents of the EPA dominate TV discussion of the topic, appearing more than four times as often as those in favor of greenhouse regulation by the agency.
Some commentators said the ruling will stoke attempts to hamper the EPA. The Obama administration signaled it may veto any laws that attempt to block the EPA. When asked about attempts to hamstring the EPA, Obama’s chief of staff Bill Daley said, “we’re not going to allow any legislation that impedes the need to improve our health and safety.”
Obama Gets Gored
In a long article in Rolling Stone, former Vice President Al Gore made pointed criticisms of the Obama administration’s work on climate change. “His election was accompanied by intense hope that many things in need of change would change,” Gore wrote. “Some things have, but others have not. Climate policy, unfortunately, is in the second category.”
Obama’s backers pointed out that many new programs are now coming into place. One is a “game-changing” $2.6-billion solar panel project announced this week that would install nearly as many panels as were installed in the whole country in 2010. The U.S. Department of Energy is backing more than $1 billion in loans for the project, and earlier this month announced it would also back $1.9 billion in loans for two solar power projects in California.
Meanwhile, private financing of renewable energy projects has picked up, with Google emerging as one of the biggest spenders. This year, the company has already invested 10 times as much in renewables and clean tech as it did in 2010, reaching a total of $780 million—including, this month alone, $102 million for a wind energy center and $280 million for a residential solar panel partnership.
Big Oil on the Big Screen
U.S. gasoline prices have dropped somewhat in the past couple of weeks, but the high prices are still a brake on the economy, said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and several members of Congress are targeting oil speculators to try to make prices lower and more stable.
Big Oil is also in the sights of the cartoon “Cars 2.” In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Director John Lasseter said, “I kept going to big oil” as the villain in the soon-to-be-released film.