Cleantech vs. Keystone XL: Could a Controversial Pipeline Undermine Obama’s Case for Green Investment?

"If we don't lead in clean energy, we'll follow. I'd hate to see us replace the importing of foreign oil with the importing of foreign technology." -- Vice President Joe Biden

Even as the protests against the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline continue outside the White House (described by Bill McKibben as "the biggest civil disobedience protest in the environmental movement for many, many years"), Vice President Joe Biden was pumping up clean energy at the National Clean Energy Summit 4.0 in Las Vegas. The Keystone XL project, which plans to expand an existing pipeline to transport some 830,000 barrel of crude oil daily from oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to Oklahoma and Texas, has been a political flashpoint, pitting environmentalists against the oil industry with the Obama administration -- which will make a final decision on it by the end of the year -- caught in the middle. The project proposes to build a new 7-billion-dollar pipeline through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, a plan that has been slammed by James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the first scientists to issue warnings about global warming.

In his essay "Silence Is Deadly," released in June, Hansen notes that the impacts of the pipeline project include "irreversible effects on biodiversity, the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal Forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife particularly bird and Caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities."


The various negative impacts on human health and the natural environment causd by current energy consumption and carbon emission were not far from anyone's lips at the clean energy pow-wow in the Mojave Desert. Hosted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Center for American Progress, the summit brought together some 700 of the nation's industry executives, entrepreneurs, investors and public officials to shape America's energy future. Vice President Joe Biden led the pack of Obama administration officials who were on hand to circle the wagons around a green energy commitment to help combat the effects of climate change and also pave a path to a low-carbon, clean energy economy.

Biden called on summit attendees to imagine "if the U.S. was the first country able to make solar power that is cheaper than coal. Imagine lithium-ion batteries made here that are capable of carrying an electric car 300 miles or more. Imagine being able to capture waste power from factories and vehicles and convert it to electricity. I think we’re going to see stunning breakthroughs."


Those stunning breakthroughs, however, might not happen on American soil. In 2009, China surpassed the US in clean energy investment and clean energy capacity, taking the top spot by investing USD 34.6 billion out of the total USD 162 billion spent worldwide, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts report "Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race." The US was relegated to second place, with USD 18.6 billion, followed by the United Kingdom at USD 11.2 billion.

The latest version of that report, issued in March, shows China to have solidified its position at the top of the pack, with private investment in the nation's clean energy sector rising to a world-record USD 54.4 billion, an increase of 39 percent. China can also brag about being the world's number one producer of solar modules and wind turbines. The report also revealed another fact that throws a little cold water on Biden's enthusiasm: As the worldwide investment in clean energy rose to a record USD 243 billion last year, America slipped to third place, with total clean energy investment at USD 34 billion, while Germany rose to second place, spending USD 41.2 billion.

Could it be that the US is lacking clean energy leadership at the top? Greenpeace executive director Phip Radford thinks so. "President Obama's record on the environment and energy policy has been lackluster," he wrote in a Yale Environment 360 article that asked several environmentalists to rate Obama performance on energy and the environment. "He took office promising to lead the fight against global warming, and yet stood silently by as polluters and their lobbyists took over the legislative process."


Speaking at the summit, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu noted that there is a 50 percent chance that within this century, the Earth's average surface temperature will increase by 5 degrees Centigrade (11 degrees Fahrenheit). While he acknowledges that it sounds like a small amount, Chu pointed out that such a change that is the same difference between Earth today and Earth during the last Ice Age, during which "Canada the United States down to Ohio and Pennsylvania was covered in ice year-round. So think about what 5 degree Centigrade will mean going the other way: a very different world."

The Pew report asserted that "countries with clear, consistent and constructive clean energy policies are powering investment forward." Unfortunately, Washington has proven to be unclear, inconsistent and unconstructive. And now President Obama finds himself in the difficult position of choosing between jobs in the short-term or the environment in the long-term. As the arrests of Keystone XL protesters outside the White House mount and the presidential election draws ever nearer, the opportunity for him to carve out his enviromental legacy recedes further into the background.


At the climate summit, Biden said that a failure by America to be the global leader in developing technology in the clean energy sector would be "the biggest mistake this nation has made in its entire history." What's scary is that avoiding that mistake would mean achieving something on a big issue that just doesn't seem possible in Washington these days: meaningful bipartisan legislation.

Chu said that a temperature change of 5 degrees Centigrade "will cause enormous resource wars over water arable land and massive population displacements, and we're not talking about 10,000 people, we're not talking about 10 million people, we're talking hundreds of millions to billions of people being flooded out permanently." As the two parties duke it out on the energy front, they would do well to think past the 2012 election and note the warning the secretary issued at the summit. After describing the nightmare of living on an Earth that was 5 degrees hotter, Chu said bluntly, "If you want that for your kids and grandkids, we can continue doing what we're doing."



image: Keystone XL protesters outside White House (credit: Josh Lopez, Flickr Creative Commons)