The symbolism was everything. Standing before a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, the conservationist president who 104 years ago busted the Standard Oil monopoly, Barack Obama made his own tilt at an environmental legacy.
The proposed 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which Obama rejected on Friday, would have borne more than 800,000 barrels of exceptionally high-carbon oil from Canada’s tar sands fields in Alberta to refineries on the US gulf coast each day.
It should have been a shoo-in for presidential approval. Conservatives and many labour unions loved it. According to a State Department report in 2014, environmentalists’ claims that it would reduce emissions from tar sands were unfounded. Keystone XL is just one of many pipelines being built across North America. If it was not built, the Canadians would simply ship it from elsewhere.
So how did Obama come down on the side of a coalition of students environmentalists, farmers and indigenous nations who admit that when they started this fight seven years ago, they had no hope of winning?
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership,” said the president on Friday in an address to the nation.
It is here that the iconoclasm of Obama’s decision reveals itself. Climate change has become such an overwhelmingly mainstream political and diplomatic imperative that it overrides traditionally unbeatable domestic interests.
The president said he had weighed the familiar arguments – jobs, gas prices, energy security – and had been swayed by none.
Building the pipeline would have done little to benefit the US, he said. More oil from Canada was not going to make pump prices cheaper or help the US cut its reliance on foreign oil. That has already happened thanks to the fracking boom. Since 2008, the US has increased the yield of its domestic oil fields by a massive 173%.
“There’s no shortage of oil and gas here, so it seems particularly crazy to be importing crap when we have lots of our own fossil fuels,” said professor Daniel Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment.
On jobs, Obama said the pipeline was insignificant and that his mooted infrastructure plan would create 30 times more jobs. But jobs are jobs and the US’s major construction union called the Keystone decision “shameful”, adding that defining jobs as insignificant just because they are temporary amounted to throwing workers “under the bus”.
Professor Robert Stavins, the director of Harvard University’s environmental economics program, told the Guardian he was not aware of any reliable assessment of the project’s employment impact. But he added that “Keystone would have created a relatively small number of jobs, and only during its construction phase.”
Obama also had some harsh words for those in the environmental camp. The pipeline was not “the express lane to climate disaster” they had proclaimed. Canada’s tar sands are undeniably dirty. They come to the surface in the form of a sticky and impure mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen. These are expensive and carbon-intensive to refine.
Now, with a chronic oversupply and low prices, tar sands have become less attractive. Oil major Royal Dutch Shell has recently pulled out of two projects in oil-rich Alberta, writing off billions of dollars worth of initial investment.
Environmentalists argued oil producers would not be able to pay the extra costs of shipping by train or truck, meaning crude that would have run through Keystone XL will now stay safely under the soil. But Stavins said this argument relied rather too much on the unknowable future wanderings of the oil price.
“It may mean less CO2 emissions in the long term, but we don’t really know,” he said. “When oil prices were higher last year, Keystone would not have made any difference, because the oil would have been developed and sent to refineries with or without Keystone. But that is less clear with the much lower oil prices we now have. In any event, this is a long-term and uncertain consequence.”
Obama had opened his remarks by pouring scorn on the totemic importance the pipeline has attained.
“Now, for years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an over-inflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said.
And yet the president was engaging in his own signification, standing in front of Theodore Roosevelt, killing Keystone because of how it would look to the rest of the world.
“We’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” he said.
Cynics have pointed out that Obama could have made his brave stand four years ago, instead of kicking the pipeline into the bureaucratic long grass and ensuring it was no impediment to his second election. But leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have already stated their opposition to Keystone XL, indicating it may no longer be a poisoned chalice.
Suddenly, environmentalists believe they are winning. The Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has long fought against Keystone in Congress, said he “wasn’t really sure it could get much better” on Thursday, after the New York attorney general launched a potentially era-defining investigation into ExxonMobil’s climate denial. “And then today’s news came”.
Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island, likened Obama’s decision to the Battle of Gettysburg, where the American civil war swung in favour of the union. “The town of Gettysburg itself was not the point,” he said.
“The tide has turned,” 350.org’s Bill McKibben told journalists on a press call. “Just in the last 36 hours we’ve had the New York attorney general subpoena the largest, richest, most powerful fossil fuel company on earth. Now we’ve had the first rejection of a major fossil fuel infrastructure project that I can think of. That is a sign that we are moving into a new era.”
Linking the decision to the upcoming United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said the decision “will reverberate from Washington, to Ottawa, to Paris and beyond”.
“Keystone is such a touchstone issue because it flies in the face of the new United States position being a climate leader,” said Kammen. With the rejection, he said, Obama was “backing words with actions”.
Obama has increasingly pinned his legacy to the outcome of those talks, striking emissions deals with China and the G7 and forcing through the strongest-ever domestic cuts to US power emissions.
Uncharacteristically commenting on a member country’s internal politics, the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figures, also tied the Keystone decision to the Paris talks, tweeting: “Just in the last 24 hours Exxon subpoenaed, Keystone rejected. We may finally have understood the risk of inaction on climate. Now to action.”
“The symbolic value is significant because it will position the United States in a more favourable light with those countries and those activists who favour strong action on climate change,” said Harvard professor Stavins. The boost to US credibility would allow it to drive through a more effective deal in Paris.
On Friday, Republicans called for back-up to mount a challenge to the rejection of Keystone in the Senate. TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, tried to staunch its bleeding share price by saying it would “review all of its options”.
However these amount to reapplying for a new presidential permit – a costly process that will most probably depend on whether a Republican or Democrat takes over the White House in 2016.
But even if the project is somehow resurrected, it will face infinitely stronger opposition. Environmentalists, who once thought taking on Keystone XL was an unwinnable fight, will now know for sure that it is only a pipeline.