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.”