Obama’s Climate Doctrine: It’s About ‘Leverage’

President Barack Obama (L) and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper take a walk on the second day of the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland on June 18, 2013.
National Journal
Ben Geman
Feb. 20, 2014, 2:02 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama didn’t of­fer a timeline for his de­cision on the Key­stone XL pipeline after meet­ing in Mex­ico with Canada’s prime min­is­ter Wed­nes­day.

But the pres­id­ent did provide an­oth­er win­dow onto his think­ing about U.S. cli­mate policy and its dip­lo­mat­ic fal­lout, dur­ing his joint press con­fer­ence with Prime Min­is­ter Steph­en Harp­er and Mex­ic­an Pres­id­ent Pena Ni­eto.

In sum: It’s great that North Amer­ica sits atop such a huge pool of fossil fuels, but if it looks like we’ll burn them forever, we’ll have little lever­age with China, In­dia, and oth­er na­tions where car­bon emis­sions are sur­ging.

“One of the won­der­ful things about North Amer­ica is we have this amaz­ing bounty of tra­di­tion­al fossil fuels, and we also have ex­traordin­ary busi­nesses that are able to ex­tract them in very ef­fi­cient ways. And that’s something that we should wel­come, be­cause it helps to pro­mote eco­nom­ic growth,” Obama said after not­ing he wants to work with Harp­er on green­house-gas emis­sions policy.

Obama ad­ded: “But we only have one plan­et, and so I be­lieve that ul­ti­mately we can both pro­mote eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment and growth, re­cog­niz­ing that we’re not go­ing to im­me­di­ately trans­ition off of fossil fuels, but that we do have to point to the fu­ture and show lead­er­ship so that oth­er coun­tries who will be the main emit­ters fairly soon”“China, In­dia, oth­er emer­ging mar­kets”“so that they can look at what we’re do­ing and we have lever­age over them in terms of them im­prov­ing their prac­tices as well.”

The com­ments in Mex­ico on Wed­nes­day night, offered dur­ing the press con­fer­ence that fol­lowed a meet­ing between the three heads of state, came as the ad­min­is­tra­tion po­s­i­tions it­self ahead of the next rounds of rocky in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate talks that are sup­posed to end with a glob­al ac­cord in Par­is in 2015.

In re­marks pub­lished by The New York­er a few weeks ago, Obama sim­il­arly said that when it comes work­ing with China and In­dia (the world’s largest and third-largest car­bon emit­ters), “it’s very hard for me to get in that con­ver­sa­tion if we’re mak­ing no ef­fort.”

Back to Key­stone: Obama de­fen­ded what has been a years-long fed­er­al re­view while ac­know­ledging that Harp­er, who has been seek­ing ap­prov­al of the pipeline for years, has chafed at the U.S. pro­cess.

“There is a pro­cess that has been gone through, and I know it’s been ex­tens­ive, and at times I’m sure Steph­en feels, a little too la­bor­i­ous. But these are how we make these de­cisions about something that could po­ten­tially have a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on Amer­ica’s na­tion­al eco­nomy and our na­tion­al in­terests,” Obama said.

The State De­part­ment re­cently launched the latest phase: A 90-day pro­cess to get in­put from oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies about wheth­er the pipeline is in the “na­tion­al in­terest.” But there’s no dead­line for a fi­nal re­com­mend­a­tion from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry or a fi­nal White House call.

The 90-day pro­cess fol­low a late Janu­ary State De­part­ment re­port that con­cluded Key­stone is un­likely to cause a surge in green­house-gas emis­sions. But, leav­ing Obama wiggle room, the ana­lys­is also modeled al­tern­at­ive scen­ari­os in which the ef­fect would be more sig­ni­fic­ant.

“So the State De­part­ment has gone through its re­view. There is now a com­ment peri­od in which oth­er agen­cies weigh in. That will be eval­u­ated by Sec­ret­ary of State Kerry, and we’ll make a de­cision at that point,” Obama said.

His re­marks came hours after a new set­back for pipeline ad­voc­ates. A Neb­raska judge on Wed­nes­day tossed out the state law used to ap­prove the pipeline route through the Cornhusk­er State.

The State De­part­ment had no com­ment on the judge’s de­cision, which Neb­raska’s gov­ernor quickly vowed to ap­peal. The con­sult­ing firm Clear­View En­ergy Part­ners on Thursday said the Neb­raska rul­ing could delay the fed­er­al re­view.

“Yes­ter­day’s rul­ing could give the State De­part­ment and the White House a reas­on to ex­tend the on­go­ing Na­tion­al In­terest De­term­in­a­tion pro­cess,” the firm said in a short ana­lys­is.