In the New York Times today, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who serves as co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, fires a warning shot above the White House’s bow. “If the president approves the Keystone XL pipeline,” Grijalva threatens grimly, “it would be a bad end to what could still be a very strong environmental legacy.”
And that — “Environment Good, Keystone Bad” — is about the sum total of his argument. Rather bizarrely, much of the op-ed is spent relitigating the Bush years. He remembers vividly when “George W. Bush was president and big business wrote environmental policy.” He recalls with horror “Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force.” And he harks back to the days when Barack Obama’s election seemed to promise a “change from Mr. Bush’s way of doing business with business.” There’s a lot of harking, actually. Insofar as the op-ed has a clear point at all, it seems to be that under Bush our environmental policy was disastrous, that it is a little better now, but that Obama might ruin all that if he has the temerity to approve a pipeline. Grijalva makes this point eight times in eleven paragraphs.
In the remaining three, he fails to marshal a single solid argument against Keystone XL. We are informed about “lobbying and bad science” but given no good examples of either; we are told that “Keystone is a bad deal for the American taxpayer on the merits” but never allowed any indication as to why; and we are given notice that the Obama “administration’s approach to the pipeline is a throwback to the time when endangered species were defenseless in the face of corporate moneymaking.” But we are never treated to anything that so much as approaches an explanation as to why. One suspects that the author would have enjoyed Occupy Wall Street.
The closest that Grijalva comes to outlining what he means by the project’s being a “visible and sometimes painful reminder of the way things were done under Mr. Bush” is to claim that,
the contractor chosen by the State Department to assess the pipeline’s environmental impacts violated federal conflict-of-interest rules to get the job, and nothing has been done about it. That company, Environmental Resources Management, did work for TransCanada, Keystone’s parent company, in the recent past and told the State Department the exact opposite on disclosure forms that anyone in the world can now read for herself.
Sadly for Grijalva, though, this is flatly untrue — as his own New York Times confirmed yesterday. In a piece titled “No Conflict of Interest Found in Favorable Review of Keystone Pipeline,” Coral Davenport bluntly recorded that “the inspector general’s report concludes that the State Department’s process in selecting ERM followed, and was at times more rigorous, than was prescribed by agency guidance.” Further, Davenport noted, the report
concludes that ERM fully disclosed its prior work history — including its work with TransCanada — and completed all previous work with TransCanada before undertaking the Keystone review.”
Pretending as usual that he was on the cusp of a decision, President Obama intimated last year that he would approve Keystone only if he was convinced it wouldn’t “significantly exacerbate” carbon emissions. He should now be satisfied. The State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement confirms that the pipeline would not make a difference to the overall amount of carbon being emitted:
Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is 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 based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios.
In other words, to deny the pipeline is not to prevent its allegedly dangerous consequences. Given that the federal government is now routinely issuing statements such as this one, it isn’t especially surprising that the dissidents are shying away from discussing anything of substance. The environmental movement can continue to flail against Keystone XL if it so wishes, but eventually it will come to recognize that that ship has sailed — and literally. As Grist’s Lisa Hymas noticed in 2012, “Keystone pipeline protesters are having an unintended impact.” That impact? To push exporters to use other modes of transport while their project is stalled. “Thanks in part to anti-pipeline activism,” Hymas noted, “oil in North America is increasingly being shipped by train.”
And by boats and trucks and barges, too — all of which are not only more dangerous and less cost-effective than pipelines but serve to move precisely the same goods to precisely the same places as Keystone would have. Which is to say that for the anti-Keystone argument to have any merit, it would need to be established that the oil it is intended to carry would never have been extracted, moved, refined, or consumed. And, as repeated analyses have demonstrated, this case can simply not be made. Building Keystone is almost certainly not going to yield faster oil-sands production; not building Keystone is not going to stop the long march toward North American energy independence. What exactly are Grijalva and his allies achieving here?
The answer, as so often, is that they are shoring up the base — impressing what is now a relatively minor issue into a much larger battle and hoping that the faithful will believe that campaign gestures and political victories are synonymous. Alas, the harsh truth is that, of late, Keystone has become more of a political football than a pressing question of economics or environmentalism — more important to consultants than to industrialists. It is telling that Mr. Grijalva elected to spend the vast majority of his brief moment in the sun taking backwards shots at an administration that has been out of power for over five years. Instructive, too, that having laid out his rather vapid reasons for opposing the approval, he concluded that “more important” in this instance is that “environmentalists have decided that enough is enough.” Where art thou, Michael Kinsley?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.