Coal by Numbers

October 08, 2013

Great news: In the past three years, 150 coal-fired power plants either have been retired or have announced a retirement date. Plant number 150 was Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts. Like lots of people, I enjoy tracking things by the numbers. If you have a quantifiable goal, reaching a big round number is a good time to reflect both on how far you've come (and still have to go).

For the Sierra Club and our local, regional, and national allies, reaching this milestone of 150 coal plants means that we're further along in our campaign to get America completely off coal-fired power by the year 2030 than almost anyone believed possible just a few years ago. To put it in perspective, just three years into a 20-year campaign, we've already secured the retirement of nearly 30 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants.

The most important numbers, though, don't tally the number of coal plants retired. They tell us how our world will change simply by not burning coal. Much of that change can be measured by what won't occur. With 150 fewer coal plants, 4,000 Americans won't die as a result of coal pollution each year. More than 6,300 heart attacks and 66,600 asthma attacks will never happen. Americans won't have to pay $1.9 billion in annual health costs. As for the personal suffering and heartbreak that those 150 plants will no longer cause -- I don't think there's even a number for that.

Something we can measure, though, is the positive change to our nation's energy future. As we've retired 60,493 megawatts of coal power, we've also added more than 32,800 megawatts of clean energy like wind and solar -- enough to power the equivalent of 9 million American homes.  Across the country, this growth in clean energy is creating local jobs -- nearly 200,000 so far -- while providing clean, affordable energy and dramatically reducing the carbon pollution that threatens our climate.

As far as we've come, though, and as much as we've accomplished, I'm even more excited about the future beyond coal plant number 150. The transition from coal is gaining momentum for several reasons. First, the grassroots movement that is the heart of the Beyond Coal campaign is gaining strength and diversity as entire communities realize they can cast off the curse of coal. Second, the steadily falling cost of renewable energy resources such as wind and solar has made it even easier to replace coal with clean, non-polluting power. And last but not least, the long-overdue regulation of carbon pollution from old, out-of-date coal-fired power plants is going to tilt the energy economics even more decisively toward cleaner sources.

The Beyond Coal campaign could never have reached this milestone so quickly without the hard work and passionate dedication of many, many people -- all of whom deserve to feel proud about what we've accomplished together -- and even prouder about the great things we're going to do next. You can count on it.

 

Steal This Democracy

October 05, 2013

America's best idea is in trouble -- but I don't mean our national parks. Yes, the parks are closed, which is inexcusable. It's not only a crushing disappointment for millions of would-be visitors but also an economic gut punch for neighboring communities -- to the tune of $76 million dollars a day. But what's really under attack is something even older than our national park system: our democracy.

How did we reach a point where a small fraction of one party in one branch of government believes it is entitled to demand everything it wants, or else it will drive our government into the ground? It's like a firefighter standing on the hose to stop the rest of the company from putting out a blaze until he gets a million-dollar raise -- all while the building burns around him.

We didn't reach this nadir in our democracy by accident. It's the result of a systematic attack on the basic democratic principles of justice and equality by a handful of people who have no interest in a healthy, functioning democracy. While there is no excuse, there is an explanation -- with three major elements.

It starts with the money that has corrupted our Congress. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the floodgates that have allowed a tidal wave of corrupting corporate money into our political system. But where is the money coming from and where is it going?

Not surprisingly, huge amounts are coming from polluter-backed groups, which promoted a dirty fuels agenda by spending more than $270 million on television ads in the last two months of the 2012 election cycle. The Koch brothers alone reportedly spent $400 million on their political operations in the 2012 election -- that's two people spending more in 2012 than the entire McCain campaign did in 2008.

That influx of cash explains why this Congress has taken more than 300 votes attacking clean air and clean water. The same people who are poisoning our democracy are also determined to poison our air and our water. I know, because we are on the ground fighting them every day.

Not only are they churning out a steady stream of bad legislation but they are also making it impossible to pass solid, bipartisan bills -- such as the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency measure -- that would benefit everyone. Somehow, they have concluded that if everyone wins, they lose. And all this is happening at a time when 80 percent of Americans agree that political money is preventing our most important challenges from being addressed.

Which brings us to the second cause of this dysfunction. Obstructionists don't need to worry about what those 80 percent of Americans think, because gerrymandering -- the process of redrawing congressional districts to favor a particular political party -- has given them "safe" seats.That's why even though more Americans voted for Democratic candidates to the House of Representatives in 2012, the Republicans won their second-biggest majority in 60 years. And redistricting happens only every 10 years.

Finally, big polluters and other special interests are spending millions to keep anyone who disagrees with them away from the polls and out of office. No sooner did the Supreme Court gut a key part of the Voting Rights Act, than state houses across the country with Republican legislatures pushed through suppressive legislation to keep young people, seniors, students, and people of color away from the polls. It's no coincidence that those are the same citizens who have voted against them.

These direct challenges to our democracy have led the Sierra Club to team up with the NAACP, Communications Workers of America, and Greenpeace to form The Democracy Initiative. The goal is bring together labor, civil rights, voting rights, environmental, good government, and other like-minded organizations with broad memberships to build a movement to halt the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, prevent the systemic manipulation and suppression of voters, and address other obstacles to significant reform.

Challenges to our democracy might get even worse. Right now, the Sierra Club and many of our allies are fighting a frightening Supreme Court challenge to campaign finance limits on individual contributions to candidates. And who was it that brought this Supreme Court case on behalf of those who would like to write million dollar checks to buy influence? Shaun McCutcheon -- the climate-change-denying CEO of a coal company in Alabama.

Let's be clear -- only about 1,200 people in America last year even came close to reaching the spending limits that McCutcheon wants to see overturned. We're talking about the one percent of the one percent of the one percent. These campaign-donation limits apply to an amount of people that couldn't even fill a high school gym. And a good number of them are oil, gas, and coal executives. Those sectors directly contributed $40 million to candidates in 2012. Give them free rein to write whatever size of check they want, and we'll see that number double, triple, or quadruple.

The faster that money pours in, the quicker the voices of ordinary Americans will be drowned out. We can't let that happen. And we won't. They may have millions of dollars, but we have millions of people. And, thanks to efforts like the Democracy Initiative, we are organizing and coming together to make sure our voices are heard. We already know we have common foes -- the way to beat them is to recognize that we have common goals.

If we want to see more shutdowns, then we should maintain the status quo. If we want to see more debt crises, then we'd better not rock the boat. If we want more attacks on our air, our water, and our climate, then all we need to do is roll our eyes and turn away in disgust at the political posturing on Capitol Hill. But if we want to restore a democracy that works for Americans and will preserve a healthy planet for future generations, it's time to stand up and fight back. For our people, for our parks, and for our democracy. 

Let 'Em Blow in New Jersey

October 02, 2013

Although we're both New Jersey born and raised, Governor Chris Christie and I disagree on many important issues -- not least his misguided love for the Mets. One thing we do agree on, though, is the real Boss of New Jersey. We both have seen our fair share of Bruce Springsteen performances. Unfortunately, neither of us started going to shows before Bruce stopped playing that great Fats Domino tune "Let the Four Winds Blow." (Never heard it? Try YouTube.)

Well, it's time to bring that song back, and New Jersey's the place to do it. According to a new poll conducted by Monmouth University, 75 percent of New Jerseyans favor building offshore wind in the state, and about two-thirds favor Governor Christie making offshore wind a priority for his administration. The poll also found that two-in-three New Jerseyans believe building offshore wind would strengthen New Jersey's economy.

Three years ago, Governor Christie signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act but, ever since, his administration has done nothing to advance offshore wind. That has squandered the opportunity to make New Jersey a double-barreled clean-energy leader, since the state already ranks fourth nationally in total solar installations.

The benefits of offshore wind for New Jersey would be immediate and substantial. The proposed five-turbine demonstration wind farm for state waters off the coast of Atlantic City would power 10,000 homes and bring more than $150 million in economic activity and hundreds of jobs to the state.

That's why the Sierra Club is urging Governor Christie to see the light of day and direct the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to propose and implement a financing mechanism for offshore wind. They should then solicit bids for offshore wind project development. All we'll need to do then, in the words of Fats, is "let 'em blow, let 'em blow." 

5 Things You Need to Know About the Big New Climate Report

September 27, 2013

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up in 1988 by two UN agencies as a way to collect and disseminate the current best science on climate disruption. Since then, it has issued four assessment reports. Today, the IPCC began releasing its fifth assessment (known as the AR5). The first part is a "Summary for Policymakers." You can find it here, but there are five things you really need to know about it.

1. The scientific work reported by the IPCC in the AR5 is the gold standard for getting a big-picture understanding of what's happening to our climate. The report itself has 259 authors from 36 countries. They are scrupulous about quantifying the certainty of both findings and projections. This report is the best tool we have for making informed, rational decisions on how to deal with climate disruption.

2. There is a lot of bad news: Several effects of climate disruption have accelerated during the past decade, such as the loss of Arctic sea ice, the melting of big glaciers, and the rise of sea levels.

3. The effects of climate disruption are not only happening today, but they're also speeding up. In fact, 12 of the warmest years in recorded history occurred during the last 15 years -- and the IPCC report says it's only going to get more intense.

4. Although global warming and climate disruption are the best-known consequences of carbon pollution, they're not the only ones we should worry about. The oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere and, as they do, become more acidic. This acidification is already killing coral reefs around the world. Ultimately, it could disrupt the entire marine food chain. Ours is a water planet -- do we really want to risk killing our oceans?

5. OK, enough with the scary stuff. Here's the single most important thing you need to know about the AR5: It's not too late. We still have time to do something about climate disruption. The best estimate from the best science is that we can limit warming from human-caused carbon pollution to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit -- if we act now. Bottom line: Our house is on fire. Rather than argue about how fast it's burning, we need to start throwing buckets of water.

We're going to need a lot of buckets. We'll also need to be smart about how we use them.

Our top priority must be to reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, while boosting clean energy such as wind and solar. The proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants that the Obama administration announced this week are aimed at our single biggest source of carbon pollution: coal. If you care about climate disruption, the most important thing you can do right now is voice your support for these protections, and get ready for an even more important fight next year to clean up pollution at existing power plants already in operation.

But President Obama also has some other big tools at his disposal: Rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, ending destructive oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and on public lands, stopping mountaintop-removal mining, curbing fossil fuel exports, and closing loopholes that exempt drilling and fracking for oil and gas from fundamental environmental protections. You can bet that the Sierra Club and our millions of members and supporters will work hard to see that he uses them. Just as importantly, we'll also work to help build the clean-energy solutions that will take the place of those dirty fuels. Every wind turbine, every solar panel, every energy-efficient building is another step toward a clean-energy future.

The best climate scientists on the planet have sounded the alarm. Let's get to work!

Coal's Days of Future Passed

September 25, 2013

Now that the EPA has released its draft carbon pollution standard for new power plants, coal apologists -- those who are left, anyway -- are doing their best chest-clutching Fred Sanford impressions.

Why is no one taking their cries of doom seriously? Because coal already had no future. In the 21st century, investing in a new coal-fired power plant makes as much sense as building a typewriter factory. The market has already decided that coal is no longer competitive.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy wants to triple the amount of utility-scale solar power on its grid while also adding another 450 megawatts of wind power. For the first time, the utility says, it's finding that new solar projects are bidding cheaper than coal and natural gas.

It's not just Colorado. Nationwide, the price of clean energy sources has plummeted compared with coal. The cost of wind is down 50 percent since 2009, and solar panels are down 80 percent since 2008. That trend will only gain momentum.

Michael Yackira, CEO of NV Energy, said earlier this year that "coal is not part of the long-term future of Nevada… we think the costs are too great, the environmental concerns and the costs associated with those environmental concerns are too great." The heads of major energy providers like American Electric Power and Duke Energy have also signaled the end of new coal-fired power plants in the United States.

The writing has been on the wall since at least 2009, when the global head of asset management at Deutsche Bank said that coal was "a dead man walking."

At this point, it's more like a crawl. "There aren't any new coal plants being built now," said Warren Buffett earlier this year. "You'll see wind, you'll see solar." Goldman Sachs recently forecast that Asian demand for coal would weaken and downgraded its price projections for international coal, and Citibank joined them in their analysis.

But even if the new carbon standards only confirm an existing trend, they're still both important and extremely welcome. They show that the United States is serious about its commitment to reduce carbon pollution. Even more important, they show that the Clean Air Act is still effective at protecting Americans from dangerous air pollution.

Time to Draw the Line

September 21, 2013

Some great things have happened since that freezing day last February when I marched to the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., with 50,000 of my closest friends. Looking back, it did feel like the start of something big. From the stage, the sight of that sea of faces on the National Mall was unforgettable. For the first time, activists from all kinds of backgrounds were standing together to say that we are not just activists fighting a single pipeline, or waging isolated efforts to combat fracking, coal, and dirty fuels; we are one climate movement, we are determined and hopeful, and we will act to solve the climate crisis.

With one voice, we challenged the president, the Congress, and our fellow Americans to stop waiting, stop listening to deniers and special interests, and start working on solutions.

President Obama may not have been in town that day, but he heard our message. Just a few months later, he delivered the first national address on climate policy in U.S. history, put his Keystone XL decision squarely into a climate context, and promised to use his executive authority to act.

Yesterday, he delivered on part of that promise, with new limits for the nation's single largest source of carbon pollution: coal-fired power plants. That's an important step forward on climate, and the president deserves credit for seeing it through.

Our momentum is building. Today Americans are taking to the streets again (this time in more than 200 cities) to Draw the Line against the Keystone XL pipeline and dirty tar sands. And again, we have reason to be both determined and hopeful. We're hopeful because, in California, Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, South Dakota, and places all across the country, solar and wind are being installed at rates cheaper than new coal or new gas. Why build out fossil fuels when clean energy helps stabilize our planet, is cheaper, and puts more people to work?

Why are we determined? Because the verdict is already in: Keystone XL would be a climate disaster. The pipeline is the lynchpin of the oil industry's plans to extract and burn the dirtiest source of oil on the planet. Every year, it would create carbon pollution equivalent to 37.7 million cars (or 51 coal-fired power plants). If we are serious about addressing climate disruption, Keystone XL cannot be built.

At the Draw the Line events, the Sierra Club, 350.org, and our many other partners around the nation will demonstrate the urgency of rejecting this tar sands pipeline in favor of clean-energy solutions. Join us! You can find the Draw the Line events nearest to you here.

Can't make it to an event today? Then send your message directly to the Obama administration.

The worst time to stop fighting is when you're starting to win.

Hokum and Bunk in the Senate

September 20, 2013

The ghost of the great cowboy philosopher and political humorist Will Rogers visited me last night. He showed me some new lariat tricks, commiserated about the recent Red Sox sweep of the Yankees, and shared a "salty one" he heard from Mark Twain. Inevitably, the talk turned to politics.

"How about that Congress?" Will asked. "They playing any better than the Yankees these days?"

"Not exactly," I said, "the Senate has been considering a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill that was introduced by Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican. It's the first energy bill the Senate has even come close to passing in six years. And they're whiffing."

Will looked skeptical. "Energy efficiency? Sounds like one of those patent medicines they sell on the radio. Mostly hokum."

"No, it's actually a straightforward, commonsense bill," I said. "It's about improving building codes, offering incentives to save on energy bills, and providing job training on new energy technologies. It would create between 66,000 and 81,000 jobs and save folks between $2.1 billion and $3.3 billion in annual energy costs by 2020. If it passes, it will be like a stimulus and a tax cut rolled into one. Everybody would save money, and we'd reduce climate pollution, too."

"Sorry," said Will. "I lost the trail at straightforward and commonsense. As I always said, the Senate thinks its job is to sit and wait till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him."

"The more things change, the more they stay the same, Will. The problem this energy-efficiency bill is running into is that senators who don't like the president's energy policies keep trying to tack on amendments that have nothing to do with energy efficiency -- or even energy, in at least one case. Senator Vitter wants to use the bill to defund the president's healthcare initiative."

"Maybe he thought it was about patent medicine, too," said Will, always ready to give even a politician he'd never met the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think so," I said. "And, then, of course, other senators want to load up the bill with industry giveaways and rollbacks. It's all political gamesmanship, of course, but it's infuriating to see it obstruct a bill that would actually do so much good."

But Will was gone, leaving only the faintest scent of sagebrush in his wake.

You don't need to be a cowboy philosopher to appreciate what an embarrassment the U.S. Senate's handling of the Shaheen-Portman bill is. Frankly, as Will would say, it's bunk. If you think it's time for our senators to do their job and pass an energy-efficiency bill that would save money, create jobs, and help stop climate disruption, take a few seconds to send them a message.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Climate Solutions

September 16, 2013

This year, Virginians will elect a new governor (one of only two gubernatorial elections this year, the other being in New Jersey). At the moment, Terry McAuliffe is leading climate denier and attorney general Ken Cuccinelli in the polls, but a lot can happen between now and November 5. The campaign has been -- to put it politely, heated -- but I think it's worth highlighting why reasonable Americans everywhere should hope that Virginia doesn't somehow get stuck with Cuccinelli.

The problem with Cuccinelli is summed up by the address of a website that the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club has created: TooExtremeKen.com. Cuccinelli's extreme record not only shows him to be on the wrong side of every environmental issue but also to be anti-science and aggressively reactionary.

How else to explain Cuccinelli's bizarre attack, as attorney general, on former University of Virginia professor and climate scientist Michael Mann? His "civil investigative demand" for university records amounted to a witch hunt that wasted hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars -- all in an attempt to discredit the scientific consensus on climate disruption. You can't say Cuccinelli lacked zeal -- he took the fight all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court. In what was widely hailed as a victory for academic freedom, he lost.

In 2010, Cuccinelli also sued to make Virginia the first state in the nation to attack the scientific consensus that carbon pollution poses a threat to human health -- and that the EPA should do something about it. (Fortunately, he lost again.)

Those who engage in witch hunts often don't believe in science. But why has Cuccinelli consistently gone the extra mile to attack anyone who thinks that climate disruption is a real problem that requires action? You need look no further than the influence of fossil fuel companies, which have donated generously to his campaign.

Currently, Cuccinelli's office is under investigation because of assistance it gave to one of those companies -- Consol Energy, which extracted natural gas from many Virginians' property without paying royalties. In dozens of emails that Cuccinelli's office later tried to hide, Consol received assistance from a Cuccinelli subordinate about how it could beat a lawsuit from these landowners. A federal judge said she was "shocked" by this, and an investigation has been launched by the state's inspector general. Consol Energy, incidentally, is one of Cuccinelli's biggest campaign donors -- having given more than $100,000 over the past two years.

Cuccinelli is one of those politicians who love to talk about a "war on coal" while ignoring the reality that coal has been waging war on all of us for decades. The good news is that Virginians, like the rest of the country, are putting dirty coal in the rearview mirror. This is a state with the nation's highest concentration of technology workers. Clean, high-tech energy like wind and solar makes sense for Virginia's future -- not coal -- especially if you're talking about jobs. Virginia already has 11,000 jobs in renewable energy, with the prospect of 10,000 more if offshore wind is properly developed.

As long as the fossil fuel industries have cash to spend, they'll be able to find politicians like Cuccinelli who are willing to carry their water. The best way to fight back is with people power, so the Sierra Club's 60,000 members and supporters in Virginia will be knocking on doors and making phone calls between now and November to alert their friends, neighbors, and other voters to just how extreme Ken Cuccinelli's positions really are. And because this election is so much about what Virginia's future will look like, a big part of the focus will be on mobilizing potential voters on college campuses from Virginia Union to William & Mary to Hampton to Virginia State. Young people know what's at stake.

Across Virginia, though, it's going to take more than empty rhetoric from a climate denier about a "war on coal" to convince Virginians to turn away from a clean-energy future.

Paid for by the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club PAC. Not authorized by any candidate. 

Working on a Dream

September 02, 2013

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

-- John Muir

"We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This Labor Day, the Sierra Club joins in celebrating working people everywhere. As Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently said about the growing collaboration between the labor movement and other grassroots groups: "It takes all of us working together to get it done."

Fifty years after Dr. King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, and nearly five years after we elected the nation's first African American president, the movements for economic, racial, and environmental justice have made historic gains, but daunting challenges remain:

  • The clean-energy movement has momentum, with solar and wind power growing by leaps and bounds and the coal and nuclear industries on the ropes. Studies show that renewable energy and energy efficiency investments create far more jobs per dollar spent than fossil fuels. Yet well-funded climate deniers continue to obfuscate reality and slow progress.
  • More than 100,000 people gathered last week in Washington, D.C., to recommit themselves to action for racial justice, jobs, and freedom on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Yet this year, the Supreme Court eviscerated one of the core gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and white families, on average, still earn about $2 for every $1 that black and Latino families make. Meanwhile, communities of color are still disproportionately poisoned by corporate polluters.
  • Young people across the globe are mobilizing in unprecedented numbers for economic and environmental justice. But their generation faces an uncertain future. Student debt in the U.S. totals $1 trillion, and one-third of 20 to 24 year olds in the U.S. are neither employed nor studying.
  • The immigrant rights movement, with the support of the Sierra Club and others, succeeded in getting the Senate to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. Yet a recalcitrant House has caused hope to fade for comprehensive immigration reform in the near future, even though deportations are at record levels, and millions of undocumented immigrant workers remain in the shadows of our society.
  • The labor movement is surging, too, with fast-food strikes and emerging-worker organizing sweeping the nation. But there's still a long road back from historically low union density, and the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us has grown wider than ever.   

These seemingly separate problems are linked -- and so are their solutions. We can overcome those obstacles and build the "Beloved Community" that Dr. King often spoke of -- but only if we do it together. We need each other.

That's why labor, racial justice, immigrant rights, and voting rights organizations are joining with the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Greenpeace in building the Democracy Initiative.

The Democracy Initiative was formed in response to a political climate where, owing to the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, wealthy corporate polluters and union-busters like the Koch brothers wield unprecedented and corrosive influence in the corridors of power. Our immediate goals include supporting voters' rights, combating voter ID laws, and curbing aggressive use of the filibuster in the United States Senate. Our real purpose, though, is to restore fairness to our democracy.

Although we may never be able to outspend the union-busting corporate polluters, we do outnumber them. By acting strategically and together, we can use our people power to beat their dollar power every time. If we want to help working families, protect our air and water, and achieve justice for all Americans, we must first defend our democracy.

This Labor Day, the Sierra Club celebrates working people -- and the growing unity of the labor and environmental movements in our quest for genuine democracy and justice for all.

Why Keystone Flunks the Climate Test

August 29, 2013

In June President Obama set a climate test for his decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He said he will not approve the pipeline if it would significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. Today the Sierra Club, Oil Change International, and 13 partner groups have released a report that settles the issue unequivocally: Keystone XL would be a climate disaster.

Our report, "FAIL: How the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test," spells out the full consequences of building the pipeline.

Start with the one fact that the State Department, the U.S. EPA, climate scientists, and even Wall Street and industry analysts all agree on: The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will create massive amounts of carbon pollution. Tar sands, after all, are the world’s dirtiest and most carbon-intensive source of oil. Oil Change International estimates that the pipeline would carry and emit more than 181-million metric tons of carbon pollution each year. That’s the pollution equivalent of adding 37.7 million cars to U.S. roads, or 51 new coal-fired power plants.

The State Department, though, tried to ignore this 181-million metric ton elephant. It argued in its environmental review of Keystone XL that tar sands development was inevitable, regardless of whether the pipeline is built. That's not true for several reasons.

Tar sands can be processed only at specialized refineries. The accessible U.S. and Canadian refineries capable of handling it are already at or near capacity. In order to expand production, tar sands producers must reach the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the heavy crude can be refined or, more likely, exported.

Although other pipeline projects have been proposed to export tar sands east, west, and south from western Canada, all of them face legal, technical, economic, and political obstacles that make them unlikely. Using rail is too expensive because tar sands transport requires special heated rail cars and loading terminals. Industry experts and financial firms like Goldman Sachs have already said this will be cost-prohibitive.

Keystone XL is critical for the Canadian oil industry to meet its goal of massive expansion in the tar sands. You don't need to take our word for it, though. Just this week, Canada's independent Pembina Institute uncovered documents from the industry itself that make that case. Briefing notes prepared for Canadian natural resources minister (and pipeline proponent) Joe Oliver state: "in order for crude oil production to grow, the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline project."

The U.S. Interior Department has already joined the Environmental Protection Agency in criticizing the State Department's environmental review for disregarding how the Keystone XL pipeline would affect wildlife and waterways. Given that we now know the State Department's review was conducted by a consultant with strong ties to Keystone XL's backer, TransCanada, and to the tar sands industry, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

In fact, earlier this month, the State Department's own office of inspector general confirmed that it has opened an into inquiry how its Keystone XL review was conducted. Perhaps the most serious charge is that State Department officials tried to cover up evidence of conflicts of interest.

For an administration that's actually done many good things on climate, the State Department’s environmental review of Keystone XL is both a failure and an embarrassment. It’s time to kick the oil industry lobbyists out of the room, listen to the scientists, weigh the facts, and reject this pipeline once and for all.

Add your voice to the growing chorus: By President Obama's own standard, Keystone XL should not be approved.


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