Climate Change Activist Groups Gear Up to Fight New GOP Senate Majority Push to Build Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted Nov. 12, 2014

MP3 Interview with Karthik Ganapathy, U.S. communications manager with the climate change group, conducted by Scott Harris


It’s a sad irony that in less than two months after the world’s largest protest confronting climate change in New York City on Sept. 21, the U.S. midterm election conferred all political power in the U.S. Congress to the Republican party. The GOP largely dismisses the science behind the assertion that climate change is a dire threat to the planet. Perhaps the most determined foe of climate change policy in Washington is Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the likely next chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe, a proud climate science denier, has often stated that global warming is a hoax and that a warmer planet may have a beneficial effect on our lives.

Come January with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, all that stands between a dramatic roll back of many existing environmental polices and the trash can is President Obama’s veto pen. Top Republican priorities include targeting Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, dismantling or weakening the federal Clean Water Act, expediting approval of liquefied-natural-gas exports and ending the decades-old ban on crude oil exports.

But perhaps the most important and symbolic environmental policy issue up for debate next year is the decision facing the White House on the future of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry 900,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. President Obama has said that he will only allow the pipeline to be built if it doesn’t significantly worsen carbon pollution. And although a State Department review of the project concluded the project won’t increase carbon emissions, environmental groups assert the study was deeply flawed and that tar sands oil and its extraction produce more greenhouse gases than natural gas and traditional crude oil. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Karthik Ganapathy, U.S. communications manager with the climate change group, who discusses the results of the midterm election and the coming showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline.

KARTHIK GANAPATHY: The electorate that votes in a mid-term election in a year with an unpopular president, you know that's generally going to favor the opposition party. So I don't think that it surprised anyone that the Republicans did well on (Nov. 4). But I think it would be a mistake to fixate on this sort of "we're doomed" kind of coverage that we've been seeing everywhere. Yes, Jim Inhofe is going to be the new chairman of the environment committee and yes, he wrote a book denying that global warming is real.

But I think time and again, the environmental movement has been written off as something that has no power, that can't get anything done. And I think that's largely been a mistake. Every time that the D.C. Beltway has sort of written us off and said, "Keystone's going to get built no matter what, Keystone's get built," "No, this time for real, Keystone's going to get built," I think every time grassroots supporters have sort of mobilized to stop that and to show that voters in this country really do care about climate change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In talking about the Keystone XL pipeline, it's in the crosshairs of the new Republican majority in the Senate, where you have a lot of politicians in post-election interviews talking about getting the Keystone XL pipeline going and under construction is one of the top priorities. What is your view of President Obama and where he's going with this? He put off the decision until after this election, but certainly he's not in any kind of stronger position here when it comes to Congress to stop it, if that's what he wants to do.

KARTHIK GANAPATHY: I think ultimately this is the president's call. I think a lot of the coverage that we've been seeing has sort of fixated on the idea that now the Republicans have both houses of Congress, the Keystone's a done deal, that even suggesting that it doesn't have a chance of passing is ludicrous. And I think that's mistaken. At the end of the day, this is the president's decision. And you're right that we've sort of kicked the can down the road in terms of making a decision.

But when President Obama outlined his Keystone principle, he laid out a clear litmus test, and that's if Keystone harms the environment or it accelerates the development of tar sands to the point where it will cause significant damage to the environment then that's not something that the State Department can sign off on. And so, I think at the end of the day, the president has all the information he needs to reject the pipeline. And for our part, we're going to keep putting pressure on the president and on congressional leaders to do the right thing here.

For the president, this is the last two years of his presidency. He doesn't have to worry about politics any more, he doesn't have to worry about which voters are going to turn up at the polls. But what he has to do is what's right for him and for his legacy. And he's made some progress on climate, more than any other president before him, I would argue. And so, I think that for him to approve Keystone would be a huge oil splotch, I think, on what otherwise could be seen as a pretty good climate record.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One of the concerns I know of many climate change activists and environmentalists is that President Obama, confronted by the new reality of the Republican-controlled Senate, might trade away the Keystone XL pipeline for some measures that might be positive in another area, in terms of maybe Congress laying off an attack on new EPA regulations on carbon emissions from coal plants, for instance. Do you think some kind of bargain might be in the making where Keystone could be traded away in favor of some other policy gain?

KARTHIK GANAPATHY: You know, I really hope not. You're certainly not the first one to speculate that, and that could be possible. But, I think at the end of the day, I really think this comes down to the president for what legacy. And I think it would be a mistake for him to sort of bargain. I think a lot of people would say that a defining feature of the Obama presidency has been to start negotiating in a position that's far too centrist to begin with, so you end up with a compromise measure that's really more of a Republican bill and then still get the right opposed to it just on principle because it's something that the president supported. I think it's fair to say that's been a recurring theme in the Obama presidency. So I think that for him to negotiate too much in terms of "let's protect this section of the EPA regulations if we approve Keystone," I think that's a mistake, and not least because Keystone is disastrous policy, the much-touted job creation, the economic benefits that the Republicans claim will come from Keystone. Numerous analyses have shown that a lot of the jobs are temporary jobs that will happen in constructing the pipeline. And the permanent jobs created could be as few as 20, that's less than a shopping mall. I think it would be a disastrous mistake to approve that on any sort of economic benefit while ignoring the massive impact that it would have on the environment. Tar sands is, as I'm sure you know, is one the oiliest, dirtiest physical extraction method there is, and so signing off on that would be a huge mistake.

But I think at the end of the day, what you're going to see is an event or a series of events between now and January that send a message that Keystone is linked fundamentally to the climate deniers who say that global warming is a myth.

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