On Friday morning, President Obama rejected TransCanada’s bid to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the United States, a major victory for the environmental cause. But in his remarks on the subject, the president made a dangerously misleading claim about the pipeline’s potential impact on climate change.

President Obama, in noting that Keystone XL has become something of a political circus, stated that “this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”

In making this remark, President Obama appears to have been answering his own question of two years earlier: will the pipeline “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution?” In the end, his answer was “no,” and that is absolutely wrong.

The correct answer to this question is that it undeniably would increase greenhouse gas emissions. The production of the pipe would have led to the purchase and consumption of a great deal more oil than is currently being consumed (and importantly, that oil would have been tar sands oil, which is notoriously dirty to produce). We know this intuitively because TransCanada went to all this trouble – why would they pursue a project that wouldn’t get more of their product out into the world? Less abstractly, we know it because the EPA said so: in a letter to the State Department earlier early this year, the EPA concluded that Keystone XL could increase carbon emissions by 27 million tons per year. What’s more, none of this takes into account the fairly unquantifiable risk of a disastrous oil spill in the American Midwest. All of this is to say that yes, in fact, Keystone XL would have been a certain disaster for the climate and the environment.

 (Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

That said, there’s a bigger, simpler reason that President Obama was wrong in saying that Keystone XL would not have been a climate catastrophe, and that is that he was asking (and answering) the wrong question to begin with. The question he needed to consider, and the question that must be posed to each and every new energy project in America, is “will this project dramatically decrease greenhouse gas emissions?”

What many people (hopefully not including the president) seem not to realize is that climate change isn’t a big deal because we risk crossing some major emissions threshold in the future, it’s a big deal because we are already way way over that threshold. For instance, many scientists have long considered 350 parts per million to be the maximum safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – in May 2013, we hit 400 and never looked back. Regardless of how you measure it, we are already living far beyond our means with regard to the climate. In short, “climate disaster” is the status quo, and any energy project that does not seriously combat that status quo is, on those grounds, disastrous.

Contrary to President Obama’s statements, Keystone XL would have been a disaster. It would have “significantly exacerbated the problem of carbon pollution,” and accordingly it would absolutely not have dramatically decreased greenhouse gas emissions. It would have been a massive victory for the status quo, and that means a massive blow to the environment.

He and his administration did the right thing on Friday, but his language leaves me concerned that he still isn’t totally bought-in on climate change. It seems possible that he doesn’t fully understand the issue, and is just going through the motions to lock down some international credibility ahead of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Or maybe he’s just being politically strategic by critiquing both sides of the “debate” and thereby appearing above the partisan fray. But either way, if he truly intends to leave a legacy of climate action, he’ll need to firm up his rhetoric and reshape his thinking on what really constitutes a climate disaster.

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