Testing the Climate Test

Testing the Climate Test

Years before the Keystone XL pipeline became a focal point in the climate movement, it was targeted by a group of activists looking to address tar sands expansion. The oil infrastructure project came into spotlight in 2011 when former NASA scientist James Hanson called “game over” for the climate should the pipeline go ahead, however, it was President Barack Obama who ultimately defined what has become know as the “climate test” for fossil fuel development projects in his speech at Georgetown University in June 2014 when he made the point that actions that exacerbate climate change are not in the national interest.

The national interest theme was repeated when President Obama announced the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline stating the project would not make a meaningful long term economic contribution, lower gas prices, or increase security in the way that moving away from dirty fossil fuels does. If the president is correct that we no longer have to “play by the old rules,” can the climate test be used to keep attention on the heart of the problem – tar sands expansion – that targeting Keystone XL ultimately sought to address given proposals to double the capacity of the Alberta Clipper that routes oil through the Midwest and build the new Energy East pipeline from Alberta to the Atlantic? Can it be applied to other fossil fuel projects such as new coal and oil export terminals that would also accelerate climate disruption?

The climate test should be tested again on these infrastructure projects because it is simple and reasonable. While we may need to keep carbon assets in the ground, questioning whether projects are in the national interest based on climate threats is a good way to open the conversation, particularly with those who may not be ready for the anti-development tone of the “leave it in the ground” message. It can accompany economic arguments (i.e. renewable energy is delivering the kind of good, secure jobs we need) as another impetus for urgent action. An important note is that a climate test frame is not just about rejecting projects. President Obama was clear in his Keystone announcement that a better way is already possible with the transition away from dirty fossil fuels happening “faster than you think.” If we are saying no to economies based on burning carbon than we have to be able to speak to the type of alternative are we saying yes to instead.

Is Canada ready for the climate test? The new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for restoring the environmental assessment process but not to placing a climate test on infrastructure projects. While the Liberal government is moving ahead with a crude oil tanker ban on British Columbia’s north coast that makes the Northern Gateway pipeline development improbable, avoiding the test leaves wiggle room for Energy East to proceed as long as Canada is acting more responsibly around spills and other environmental hazards. What Canadians are certainly ready for is climate action leadership and a new economic plan that doesn’t rely on dirty, high carbon impact oil. Let’s test the test so that addressing climate disruption and the protecting the national interest are increasingly seen as one in the same thing.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user NRDC pix