Obama Pushed to Choose Between Climate Change Goals, Friends in Canada

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Thousands march on the National Mall to protest the Keystone XL pipeline on February 17, 2013. Photo: null/Jay Mallin

In a few months, President Obama will have to make a decision on whether to proceed with the Keystone XL Pipeline, and on Sunday the issue got a bit more complicated when 35,000 people gathered on the National Mall to protest the project. Though Obama happened to be out of town this weekend, the size of the event, which was organized by the Sierra Club, 350.org, and the Hip Hop Caucus, was still impressive. “All I ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change and now I’ve seen it,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, told protesters. “I cannot promise you we’re going to win, but I’ve waited a quarter century to find out if we were gonna fight. And today, at the biggest climate rally by far, by far, by far, in U.S. history — today, I know we’re going to fight.”

The State Department says it won't make its recommendation to the president on whether to approve the pipeline until March, but following President Obama's State of the Union promise to focus on climate change, the issue is already starting to heat up. Opponents say the pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canadian oil sands to refineries in Texas, would do irreparable damage to the environment. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who was the only member of Congress at the rally, told Reuters that if Obama approves the pipeline he'll face a "credibility gap." "He would have to roll out a very complete and very strong package to offset something that on its own is described by government scientist as ‘game-over’ on climate," said Whitehouse.

On the other hand, if Obama kills the project, he'll face harsh criticism from those who say it creates jobs and increases the United States' energy independence. Plus, it could cause a major rift with Canada. Oil is a major part of the country's economy, and nearly all of its exports go to the United States. The New York Times reports that Canadian leaders have "made it clear that an American rejection would be viewed as an unneighborly act and could bring retaliation." That means purchases of American F-35 fighter jets and other trade and border issues could be affected. We're not talking about anything resembling the breakdown in United States-Canada relations depicted in the South Park movie, but the idea of tangling with our neighbors to the North is still troubling.