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View from Australia: Obama chooses senseless gestures over energy security

By Justin Burke

In the State of the Union address this past Tuesday, President Barack Obama declared that we "don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy." His statement echoes the post-partisan "audacity of hope" formulation we have heard many times before — "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." As a rhetorical device, future historians will surely compare it to President Kennedy’s use of chiasmus: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Despite the President’s fine words, he recently did choose between the environment and the economy; he rejected the Keystone XL pipeline which was to bring diluted bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to the US for refining. Amidst an outcry from environmental groups about the additional carbon emissions (approximately 15 per cent greater than ordinary crude) and the potential for aquifer damage in the event of an accident, Obama chose to reject the pipeline application.

Pipe ready to be laid in Nebraska to construct Keystone XL

Pipe ready to be laid for the Keystone pipeline (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Keystone XL pipeline controversy perfectly encapsulates the impoverished state of the current debate. The opponents of the pipeline charged that this was the "line in the sand," with prominent scientist James Hansen claiming "Essentially, it’s game over for the planet."

Yet Americans will not consume one less gallon of fuel because of this decision. They will merely import it at greater expense from somewhere less savoury like Venezuela or Nigeria. Indeed, the oil sands will not stay in Alberta and may be exported to less hysterical customers like China.  Energy security nil, climate change nil.

Pipeline or no, America will need to consume vast quantities of hydrocarbons in the coming decades until competitive alternative energy sources come on stream.

President Obama urged more taxpayer support for clean energy in his speech, but avoided mentioning the lamentable investments that the Department of Energy have recently made, like Solyndra, a Californian solar cell manufacturer which received a $535 million loan guarantee before going bankrupt amidst accusations of political favouritism.

A digger in Alberta's Athabasca oil sands

A digger in Alberta's Athabasca oil sands (Photo: Shell)

According to Bill Gates, what is needed is nothing short of an "energy miracle," with unbelievable scale and reliability. Describing some of the current renewable options as "gimmicky," he pleads for the money to go instead to the woefully underfunded basic research from which such a miracle will emerge.

If President Obama wants to transcend the "environment vs economy" binary, he will need to reject rent-seekers and senseless environmental gestures, and embrace all available hydrocarbons in the immediate term, plus make a stunning commitment to funding basic science for the longer term. Audacious action to match fine words. This challenge requires no less.

30 January 2012