Re-Defining 'Energy Independence' in the Keystone Era

Feb 19, 2013 | Updated Apr 21, 2013

Sitting on President Obama's desk is a decision memorandum on whether or not to approve the Keystone pipeline, which would take tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is a controversial decision -- many have highlighted the terrible effects of digging up and burning tar sands oil. But these concerns are countered by those who argue the project would enhance North American energy independence, and create American jobs.

The political calculus is easy to explain: Yes, the tar sands are vast, and hold especially dirty oil -- but we use a lot of oil, and some of it comes from hostile countries, so reducing those imports might be worth some of the negative environmental effects of tar sands. America would get several thousand construction jobs out of the deal. It seems like a straightforward decision to make North America more energy independent and build out our energy infrastructure.

Not so fast.

The world has changed. We need to re-define what we mean by the term "energy independence." If we're going to get serious about addressing climate change, we need to be independent of dirty energy. And I believe we need American leadership to solve this urgent global problem.

Consider events over just the last 12 months. The cost of relief from Hurricane Sandy, at more than $61 billion, used up all the increased revenue for the first year of the tax increases Congress recently passed. The drought in the Midwest almost forced us to close the Mississippi River - the fourth longest river in the world - to barge traffic. That drought has already cost 2000 workers their jobs in a meatpacking plant in Texas because there is not enough food for cattle. Rice farmers in Texas have been told they might not get water this year.

Insurance companies know what is happening. They are dramatically raising rates on coastal properties in the United States.

The National Research Council recently released a report predicting that extreme weather will increase in frequency and severity over the next ten years so much that it will exceed the capacities of affected societies to manage. The Defense Department gets it. They are preparing plans for war over resource shortages.

The point: This is not a problem for 2100 or 2050. This problem will overwhelm us in the coming decades if we don't act now.

These stark facts need to be held up against the potential benefits of the Keystone pipeline, or, indeed, any other energy project. Against this present danger, it is preposterous to allow a pipeline that will open up some of the dirtiest oil on the planet.

I care very deeply about providing jobs for all Americans. But the pipeline offers false hope. If we had a real energy policy -- the low-carbon energy policy our future demands--we would be looking at the millions of jobs that could be created by clean energy and energy efficiency. And the energy efficiency jobs cannot be outsourced: They are for construction workers, rebuilding American homes, shops, offices, and transportation infrastructure.

Then, of course, there is China. Some say that if we don't approve the pipeline, China will get the oil and the planet will get the carbon anyway. In my view, it is weakness to base our policy on what China might do. America should make the right decisions and lead the rest of the planet.

But we cannot lead the world if we are unwilling to address the problem of dirty energy at home. The president has the authority to act, but let's all recognize that the supporters of dirty energy will use every tool at their disposal to stop him. For this particular political decision, we will need to demonstrate that parents, farmers, business leaders, labor organizations, faith leaders, construction workers, health care providers -- Americans from all walks of life -- understand the urgency of seizing a clean energy future.

America can still lead on this. The time is now.