How The World Helped Make Obama's Keystone Decision

The pipeline rejection sends a powerful statement ahead of United Nations talks.

President Barack Obama walks away from the podium, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry after making a statement on the Keystone Pipeline, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. With the The Obama administration has rejected Canadian energy giant TransCanada's application to build the Keystone XL pipeline.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As the White House has ramped up its climate-change agenda in President Obama’s second term, much of the rhetoric has been framed around the upcoming United Nations climate change talks in Paris.

And the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline was no exception.

In a press briefing Friday announcing his plans to reject the Alberta-to-Gulf-Coast oil-sands pipeline, Obama made several references to the role the leading U.S. has played ahead of the Paris talks, whether by enacting rules limiting emissions from power plants or striking climate deals with countries such as China and India.

“Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership,” Obama said. “And that’s the biggest risk we face—not acting.”

And coming just weeks before the international negotiations, which open on Nov. 30, the Keystone rejection offers a resounding exclamation point on that leadership posture.

The actual emissions and climate impact of the pipeline were far less than the volume of the debate. Environmentalists had long warned that approval of the pipeline would be “game over” for the climate by opening up untold amounts of dirty tar sands, while supporters said it would create thousands of jobs and mean lower oil prices—but both narratives were exaggerated.

It was a sentiment that Obama even acknowledged when he said the pipeline had taken on an “overinflated role in our political discourse” and had become a “symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.”

But in trying to build a solid climate-change resume, the White House was more than happy to embrace the symbolism.

The State Department’s assessment even acknowledged that the pipeline alone would not significantly increase the level of crude extraction or demand for oil at American refineries, while also pointing out it would have minimal economic benefits. But ultimately, Secretary of State John Kerry said the decision “could not be made solely on the numbers.”

“The critical factor in my determination was this: Moving forward with this project would significantly undermine our ability to continue leading the world in combatting climate change,” Kerry said in a statement.

“This is has been kind of the dark cloud hanging over the administration,” said Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program for the World Resources Institute. “People have seen the Clean Power Plan and they understand that the administration is moving forward on climate change and doing as much as it can without Congress acting, but this has always brought a question mark.”

“Now, this blows that dark cloud away and allows the U.S. to go into Paris with as strong a record as it can,” she added.

Obama has made the Paris talks the lodestar of his second-term energy agenda. He engaged in bilateral talks with major emitting countries, headlined by the historic agreement with China last year in which the two countries agreed to cut emissions through the next decade (China pledged to peak its emissions by 2030).

Those agreements, however, were largely dependent on what the U.S. was doing at home. Long seen as a climate laggard, the U.S. in recent years has enacted rules limiting emissions from new and existing power plants, tightened fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and made strides to increase green energy. Those measures combined for a pledge to the U.N. promising domestic reductions of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

While the Keystone decision doesn’t change those targets, it does offer a cherry on top. And coming so close to the opening of the talks, it allows the U.S. to stride in with very few black marks on its resume.

“There’s no question that the White House is milking every ounce of symbolic climate value of the decision,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate aide.

But Bledsoe added that while the timing of the announcement “is an attempt to place the decision in an explicitly climate frame,” it was one of many factors that made the rejection a possibility.

“Fundamentally, the plunge in global oil prices reduced the political salience of the issue for Republican boosters and gave the president a freer hand to focus on the climate implications,” he said. “This would have been a much more difficult decision at $100-a-barrel oil.”

Opponents have likewise jumped on the rejection as favoring symbolism over values, with Sen. John Hoeven calling it a “political decision” and House Speaker Paul Ryan saying it was “sickening” that the president was “catering to special interests” with the rejection.

The State Department’s decision goes through many factors, from the low jobs impact to the determination that Keystone would not make a significant impact on gas prices. The report also noted many health impacts and the threat of impact on drinking water.

But White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that Paris loomed above it all.

"Given the fact that so much of their conclusion rested upon the impact that this decision would have on international deliberation on climate change, it seems obvious to me that the authors of this report were mindful of the upcoming international meeting to discuss climate change,” he said.