New York Times building
digiart2001

The New York Times editorial board and Times columnist Thomas Friedman have both come out swinging against the Keystone XL pipeline.

A strong editorial today calls on Obama to kill the project. The headline: “When to Say No.”

[Obama] should say no, and for one overriding reason: A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem. …

Supporters of the pipeline have argued that this is oil from a friendly country and that Canada will sell it anyway. We hope Mr. Obama will see the flaw in this argument. Saying no to the pipeline will not stop Canada from developing the tar sands, but it will force the construction of new pipelines through Canada itself. And that will require Canadians to play a larger role in deciding whether a massive expansion of tar sands development is prudent. At the very least, saying no to the Keystone XL will slow down plans to triple tar sands production from just under two million barrels a day now to six million barrels a day by 2030. …

In itself, the Keystone pipeline will not push the world into a climate apocalypse. But it will continue to fuel our appetite for oil and add to the carbon load in the atmosphere. There is no need to accept it.

In an op-ed published on Sunday, Friedman also calls for rejecting Keystone, but with a different spin. He thinks Obama will end up approving the pipeline, so he wants activists to make such a stink about it that Obama feels compelled to take other big steps to forestall climate change in exchange.

I hope the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?) But I don’t think he will. So I hope that Bill McKibben and his 350.org coalition go crazy. I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change. … So cue up the protests, and pay no attention to people counseling rational and mature behavior. We need the president to be able to say to the G.O.P. oil lobby, “I’m going to approve this, but it will kill me with my base. Sasha and Malia won’t even be talking to me, so I’ve got to get something really big in return.” …

If Keystone gets approved, environmentalists should have a long shopping list ready, starting with a price signal that discourages the use of carbon-intensive fuels in favor of low-carbon energy. Nothing would do more to clean our air, drive clean-tech innovation, weaken petro-dictators and reduce the deficit than a carbon tax. One prays this will become part of the budget debate. Also, the president can use his authority under the Clean Air Act to order reductions in CO2 emissions from existing coal power plants and refiners by, say, 25 percent. He could then do with the power companies what he did with autos: negotiate with them over the fairest way to achieve that reduction in different parts of the country. We also need to keep the president’s feet to the fire on the vow in his State of the Union address to foster policies that could “cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.” About 30 percent of energy in buildings is wasted.

Friedman’s support is nice, but this is, in the grand tradition of D.C. pundits, too clever by half. If the green movement were strong enough to make the president nervous, why wouldn’t he just reject the pipeline? And if it isn’t, why would he bother with a symbolic “trade”?

Obama can’t “trade” for a price on carbon. A carbon tax just isn’t going to happen under the current Congress, which won’t even work with Obama to keep the country financially solvent — so the president would be left trading with … himself?

Friedman is right that the president can take significant steps without the approval of Congress, including the big one of cracking down on dirty old coal plants. Obama should take those steps because they are the right thing to do. But does anyone really think they’d make the green movement any less angry about Keystone approval?

Obama should do the right thing. Period. This talk of “trades” is little more than Beltway navel gazing.

Anyhoo, these two Times pieces come just a week after The Washington Post irked climate activists with an editorial accusing them of “fighting the wrong battles” by protesting Keystone instead of pushing for a carbon tax. Grist’s David Roberts sums up the Post’s logic: