The Obama climate change speech that could doom Keystone—or not -

The Obama climate change speech that could doom Keystone—or not

A guide to the key hints we’ll likely get from the president


President Barack Obama is expected to lay out his second term agenda on climate change in a major speech on Tuesday at Georgetown University. North of the border, Ottawa and Alberta will be X-ray every sentence for signs that might indicate whether the White House is leaning toward an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — or not.

Are the new climate policy initiatives the president is expect to announce meant to sugar coat the bitter pill of a presidential go-ahead on the Keystone later this year? Or will the White House embrace a “target everything” approach to global warming that won’t make any exceptions for Canada’s beleaguered pipeline?

There are reasons to speculate one way and the other.

Most of the media reports that have anticipated a major presidential announcement on climate policy have leaned toward the bargaining chip hypothesis. As Luiza Savage, here at Maclean’s, pointed out last week, the theory that the White House would have to throw a meaty bone to environmentalists in order to make a Keystone approval politically feasible has been circulating in Washington—and Ottawa—for quite some time. Tomorrow’s announcement could be precisely the meaty bone everyone’s been anticipating.

Also, a number of sources in and near the White House have been telling journalists that the focus of the the new measures will be power plants. Keystone opponents at a Democratic fundraiser, for example, reportedly told Bloomberg in mid June that “the package [of climate change policies] will include final rules from the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants.” Likewise, a front-page New York Times article published last week announced that, “President Obama is preparing regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.”

That would seem to indicate coal-fired plants, by far the largest electricity producers in the U.S., are the White House’s main target. Electricity generation accounts for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions south of the border, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and coal plants have long been one of the chief boogeymen of U.S. climate policy. The oil industry, accounts for the lion’s share of carbon dioxide emissions tied to the transportation sector, but when it comes to electricity production it is a minnow:

A third reason to suspect tomorrow’s announcement has much to do with Canada’s pipeline is its timing: Just a few months before the White House is expected to issue its final verdict on Keystone in late September or early October.

Yet, other details suggest Canadians should perhaps curb their enthusiasm.

First, the president could well announce that the stricter emission standards for power plants will hit oil refineries too, a signal, perhaps, that he has embraced a sweeping approach to climate policy and will make no exceptions for Keystone.

In an official White House YouTube video previewing Obama’s upcoming speech, it’s the picture of an oil refinery—not a coal-fired plant—that appears in the background as the president’s voice-over announces an upcoming “national plan to reduce carbon pollution.” The choice of imagery has Ottawa insiders concerned. (The crucial bit is about 16 second into the 1.15 minute video.)

Also, the timing of the speech might have actually nothing to do with the Keystone approval process. As the Bloomberg article noted, the EPA had meant to issue emission standards for the existing fleet of electric-power plants in April, but delayed its plans after the draft rules met with strong opposition from industry. The agency has been tweaking those regulations every since. It could be that it has now reached finally a workable arrangement—one fit for a grand presidential pitch to the public.

Tomorrow should give us some good cues. Stay tuned.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Organizing for Action, a grassroots political group close to President Obama, has “finally embraced environmentalists’ pleas to take a stance against Keystone.” That was incorrect. The group has recently stepped up its climate change advocacy efforts, but has not openly opposed Keystone.