Deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is surely one of the toughest challenges of Barack Obama’s presidency. He hasn’t made up his mind yet, of course. Or has he?
Bloomberg reports that the Obama administration “is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects.” Up to now, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), federally approved projects had to consider potential impacts like dangerous spills or air pollution, but not global warming. Directing all federal agencies to take climate change into account under NEPA will transform environmental policy in this country, putting a huge new drag on the economy in the process.
But let’s concentrate on Keystone. The Bloomberg report makes it clear that Obama’s order opens the way for further litigation and substantial delays on Keystone, whether the federal government officially blocks construction or not. That’s because NEPA allows citizens and environmental groups to file claims against projects even after they win government approval.
So the Obama administration could green-light the pipeline, file a report that stops short of calling Keystone a major global-warming hazard, and still find the project delayed for years by environmental groups bringing court challenges under the new NEPA guidelines.
In this scenario, headlines loudly proclaiming Obama’s approval of Keystone would shield him from Republican attacks. Simultaneously, the president could mollify the left by claiming credit for guidelines that effectively allowed his allies to stop the pipeline. And that would be right. Obama can publicly “approve” Keystone, while simultaneously handing the left the tool they need to put the project on semi-permanent hold. Environmentalists would take the political heat, while Obama would get off scot-free. Pretty clever.
Now maybe Obama is going to nix the pipeline outright. That’s what Lawrence Solomon predicts. At this pont, however, Obama’s formal public decision may not matter. The Keystone XL pipeline may have already been effectively stopped by Obama’s quiet new directive. The only remaining question would be how much credit or blame Obama wants to openly take for a block that’s already been thrown.