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Jeffrey Sachs: The State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline brings humanity one stop closer to climate disaster

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News, and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Hundreds of protest vigils are planned across the country on Monday in protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline. On Friday, the much anticipated State Department’s environmental impact statement for the Keystone pipeline was released. The proposed pipeline would carry as many as 830,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands oil through Canada and the United States for processing and transportation. The review said, quote, “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States”, and is seen as a backing of the plan.

The White House has yet to make a decision, though. Last June, President Obama said of his decision on the pipeline, he would do what’s in the best interest of the country.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.


NOOR: Now joining us to discuss this and give us an update is Jeffrey Sachs. He’s a world-renowned economist, bestselling author, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. His latest piece in the Huffington Post is “Keystone: The Pipeline to Disaster”.

Thank you so much for joining us.

JEFFREY SACHS, DIRECTOR, EARTH INSTITUTE: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

NOOR: So let’s get off by getting your response to the environmental impact statement by the State Department. And it’s saying that it’s–this pipeline will not have a significant impact on climate change. What’s your response to that?

SACHS: It’s really an odd statement, because it basically says, doesn’t really matter what we do, these oil sands are going to be used. And so it is a very passive kind of impact statement. It basically looks a bit at the pipeline, but it doesn’t really look at the core question, which is how much of these oil sands are going to be burned and what does that mean for the planet and for the climate. President Obama recognized that this is an issue that is part of the big and crucial issue of man-made climate change. But then the impact statement basically washes his hands of that complicated question by saying, doesn’t really matter what we do, this oil’s going to be used; and therefore they find a very benign conclusion to the whole story. I don’t find this satisfactory at all.

NOOR: And what’s most concerning for you about this report? It’s being perceived as sort of giving the green light for the construction, although the White House has said it hasn’t made its final decision.

SACHS: We have a basic problem, which is that if you add up all the oil, coal, and gas that Americans and Canadians and Russians, Chinese, Indians, and so forth all over the world are using, the result is that we are dangerously destabilizing the global climate. Every time we burn one of those fossil fuels, we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that creates climate disruption.

And the scientists are quite clear and the reasons for it are quite clear: we have to go on a diet to cut back on how much carbon emission we’re causing.

But when a big project comes to develop a massive new unconventional source of petroleum, or similarly unconventional source of coal or natural gas, we have to take into account: what does that mean for our overall carbon budget? It’s a little bit like saying, okay, here is another binge dessert; should we eat it or not? And the conclusion is: yeah, it’s going to be eaten one way or another, so we might as well eat it; rather than going to the core of the question, which is: how much indigestion are we going to get when these massive new reserves are opened up?

Now, the State Department says: doesn’t really matter what we do; if we don’t build the pipeline, it’s going to be shipped by rail or some other means to some refineries or exported. It’s kind of incredible. This is the U.S. government talking, basically saying, we don’t have any real decision over how much fossil fuel is used, so might as well use it. It seems to be the gist of the argument, whereas the whole point of the global climate negotiations that are underway right now and that are supposed to conclude in December 2015 in Paris is that the world’s governments have to get together and say, enough is enough, we have to draw some lines. And this decision should be part of that kind of line drawing, so that we stay within a safe level of fossil fuel use that isn’t going to wreck the planet.

NOOR: And supporters would argue that this is going to bring badly needed jobs to the U.S. and to Canada and it’s going to boost our economy, it’s going to help the U.S. become self-reliant and not be dependent on Middle Eastern oil. How would you respond to those arguments? If the economy’s in a bad shape, we do get a lot of oil from the Middle East.

SACHS: Well, first of all, most of this oil is aimed, actually, to be transported through the United States, and a tremendous amount exported abroad. So it’s not even clear what this really means for our own use.

But more than that, we have alternatives. That’s the whole point of good, realistic energy policy. We have massive amounts of wind power, solar power, hydro, nuclear. I happen to be in favor of those options too if they’re properly managed. We have ways to have energy without wrecking the planet. And we’re supposed to be making choices. Those also can be good for the economy.

So this idea that you have to just burn whatever fossil fuel you have is a big mistake. It’s not going to help our economy. It’s going to wreck the planet. It’s going to lead to more droughts, more floods, more heatwaves, more extreme storms like the kind that pounded my city, New York City, in Superstorm Sandy. It’s going to lead to more extreme droughts like the kind that’s leading to a water emergency in California.

We have to raise our eyes a little bit to reality and not just go with these slogans of the oil companies, who of course want to make short-term profits and aren’t thinking about the future. For the rest of us, we actually are thinking about the future, thinking about our children, and thinking about the future of the planet. We have much better choices than just to go burning every bit of oil, coal, and gas we can find.

NOOR: And finally, so the environmental movement has made the opposition to this a key part of their agenda over the past several years. Twelve hundred people were arrested in front of the White House back in 2011. Hundreds of actions are planned for Monday night. What is it going to take to stop this? What kind of activism? You know, there’s–civil disobedience has been ongoing against the construction of this, throughout America and parts of Canada as well.

SACHS: Well, I think what we’re all yearning for is a government that actually makes policies to keep us safe. So if the United States government would show us that there is a climate strategy, a climate framework, an energy policy, and said, well, this does fit or doesn’t fit, but here’s our plan, we’d all feel a lot better.

There is no plan right now. There is no strategy. That’s why it said in this document, well, this is going to be burned no matter what we do. I was absolutely shocked to read a statement like that. It’s, like, government as passive bystander.

What we want is a government that has a strategy of working with Canada, with China, with India, with Russia, with Europe to come up with something that will be safe for the planet. And many people say, the ones that are in favor of this, well, you know, it’s–Canada’s going to just send it to China or do something else. But the whole idea of a global agreement is that we save ourselves altogether. And that’s what we’re aiming for.

I would hope that the White House would say, look, we’re not going to take a decision on this, because we have a bigger issue, which is a global climate agreement. We’ve got to reach that agreement, and this has to fit within that. If they do it that way, they’re actually putting the horse before the cart–we can actually move someplace. The way that they’re doing it right now is backwards. And I think that’s what the protesters, the environmentalists, and just the people who are watching and paying attention to this are yearning for, some common sense, so that it’s not just short-term greed but actually a strategy which is determining our policies.

NOOR: Jeffrey Sachs, thank you so much for joining us.

SACHS: My pleasure. Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us at @therealnews on Twitter. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


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Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, bestselling author, and syndicated columnist whose monthly newspaper columns appear in more than 80 countries. His website is