Obama's Devious Dithering Over the Keystone Pipeline

Keeping hope alive on both sides of the issue.


Keystone Oil

Building the Keystone pipeline from Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast would mean "game over for the climate," according to the climatologist turned climate activist James Hanson. Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate change action group 350.org, calls the pipeline the "fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet." Along with a host of other environmental activists, the two are trying to halt the construction of the pipeline, which if completed would ship 830,000 barrels of crude per day. Their political leverage point is that, because the pipeline crosses the border, President Barack Obama must decree that its construction is in the "national interest" before it can be built.

In a speech last June on climate change, President Obama declared that he would approve the Keystone pipeline only "if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." Last week, the U.S. Department of State's new final supplemental environmental impact statement (FSEIS) on the pipeline concluded that it wouldn't. If the pipeline were not built, the report reasoned, the same amount of oilsands crude would be transported by freight trains to the Gulf coast and/or by new pipelines to Canada's east or west coasts. Since the oil is going to be produced and transported anyway, the FSEIS concluded, denying a construction permit to the pipeline will have essentially no effect on future trends in man-made climate change. The report also found that the pipeline construction and operation would not likely generate any especially harmful environmental spillovers such as polluting soil, ground and surface water, or the air. Construction would, however, inject about $3.3 billion into the U.S. economy and create more than 42,000 construction jobs.

So: Game over for the pipeline opponents? Hardly.

The FSEIS' conclusions infuriated activists. "The State Department's environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline is a farce," Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica declared in a statement. League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski warned that Obama faced "a choice between locking us into an unsafe future with more dirty and dangerous fuels or moving toward a clean energy economy that will help combat the climate crisis." Earlier this week, activists held nearly 300 candlelit vigils across the country to protest the pipeline. At one of them, McKibben declared, "Now we're going to find out whether [Secretary of State] John Kerry and Barack Obama are…captives of the oil industry or whether they're willing to really stand up when it counts for the commitments they've made about climate change."

On the other hand, proponents of the pipeline hailed the State Department's report, urging the president to immediately greenlight the project. "This final review puts to rest any credible concerns about the pipeline's potential negative impact on the environment," American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said. "The only thing left is for President Obama to declare that this project is in our nation's interest." Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb) said, "There is no question that moving forward with Keystone XL is in our 'national interest.'" Facing a tough re-election campaign, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) agreed: "This new study underscores what has been said all along about Keystone XL Pipeline: It's time to build."

After five years of positive environmental and economic reviews, it is way past time to let the project proceed. Yet stopping the pipeline has attained symbolic primacy for many activists, becoming a litmus test by which they demand that President Obama prove his environmental sincerity. Activist groups warn that if the administration doesn't reject the pipeline, environmentalists in the Democratic Party's base will stay home during the upcoming mid-term elections. Some 76,000 have also signed a pledge of resistance vowing to engage in acts of civil disobedience to protest the pipeline.

So what's going to happen now? The State Department is soliciting public comments for the next month; it then has 90 days in which to consult with other federal agencies about their views of the Keystone project. That means that any ruling by the Obama administration can be delayed until at least June. In 2012, President Obama adroitly avoided making any decision with regard to the Keystone pipeline when it might have affected his campaign for a second term in office. By refusing to decide, the president kept hope alive on both sides of the issue. In this case, the past is probably prologue: Obama will bravely continue to dither over Keystone until after the Congressional elections in November.

Disclosure: Back in 2011, I went on a junket to report on the development of Alberta oil sands. My travel expenses were covered by the American Petroleum Institute. The API did not ask for nor did it have any editorial control over my reporting of this trip or, for that matter, any other reporting that I do. For more background, see my articles, "The Man-Made Miracle of Oil from Sand," and "Conflict Oil or Canadian Oil?"