Politics & Policy

Obama’s Keystone Dithering

Not building the pipeline is harming the environment, but the zealots don’t care.

Nowhere has President Obama’s legendary indecision been on more vivid display than in his bizarre dithering over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move crude oil from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries some 1,700 miles to the south. The southern leg of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to the Gulf, began operating last week. But the northern end has been in limbo for five years. Last March Obama assured Senate Republicans that a decision on Keystone would be made before the end of 2013. We are still waiting. One more broken promise.

#ad#Of course, the president claims that his indecision has nothing to do with politics. He has his excuses. His own State Department’s exhaustive environmental review didn’t raise any red flags, but the White House has requested another review. State concluded that “the proposed pipeline would serve the national interest,” but Obama says that he needs to learn more. The pipeline would directly create 42,000 jobs over its two-year construction period in addition to tens of thousands of support jobs, but President Obama counters that it would result in only 50 “permanent” jobs for maintenance people once completed. That’s like opposing the construction of the new World Trade Center after 9/11 because the only permanent jobs created would be building-maintenance ones. Sean McGarvey, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department at the AFL-CIO respond to Keystone’s critics this way: “The interstate Highway System was a temporary job; Mount Rushmore was a temporary job. If they knew anything about the construction industry, they’d understand that we work ourselves out of jobs and we go from job to job to job.”

It’s increasingly obvious that Obama’s main reason for delaying the pipeline decision is politics, pure and simple. His environmental-activist supporters, for whom reducing carbon emissions is paramount, have turned the battle into a high-profile cause célèbre. The green camp would view any decision from Obama as an act of betrayal. “It’s not going to be pleasant if it is approved,” Robert J. Brulle, a Drexel University professor who studies the environmental movement, told National Journal. “One thing we can be pretty sure of is that the marriage between the greens and the Democratic party will be brought under pretty severe review.”

The irony is that this delay on Keystone has probably harmed the environment. Domestic oil production has increased by 50 percent since Obama took office, due to the technology revolution in the petroleum industry. Increasingly, as North Dakota Republican John Hoeven says, companies are “forced to deliver their product by rail because they don’t have the pipelines.” In the last ten months, there has been an average of one large oil spill a month because of rail accidents. One in Quebec last July killed 47 people and decimated an entire town.

Pipelines are inherently safer than rail for transporting oil because they can bypass population centers and fragile ecosystems; rail often rolls through major cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia and has to follow routes laid down 150 years ago.

Hoeven points out that a clear majority of both houses of Congress supports building Keystone. A total of 62 senators voted for a pro-Keystone amendment last March, enough to overcome a filibuster. Hoeven told reporters this month that if Obama doesn’t decide soon, he intends to attach legislation authorizing Keystone construction to debt-ceiling legislation or another must-pass bill. “We would try to attach it to something that [President Obama] would not veto,” he said.

There are real drawbacks to further delays.

“The time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it’s not the right one,” Canadian foreign minister John Baird says. “We can’t continue in this state of limbo.” Canada’s government has made it clear that if the U.S. waits too long or outright refuses further Keystone construction, they will make the Alberta crude oil available to China, leaving the U.S. even more dependent on unstable OPEC countries.

A new report from the American Petroleum Institute concludes that the U.S., in partnership with Canada, has enough energy resources to be completely independent of foreign liquid oil by 2024. Jack Gerard, the president and CEO of the Institute, says bluntly: “The question before us today is whether we have the vision and wisdom to take full advantage of our vast energy resources.”

Even some leftists are starting to question Obama’s stubborn delaying tactics. New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait has admitted that blocking Keystone would do very little to slow carbon emissions overall. “The whole crusade increasingly looks like a bizarre misallocation of political attention,” he wrote.

But it is easily explained once you realize that President Obama in his second term has surrounded himself with advisers who are even more ideological than his first-term team. Take John Podesta. Formerly the head of the liberal Center for American Progress, he recently joined the White House staff — and he is a rabid opponent of Keystone. He believes it will have a huge negative impact on the environment because of increased carbon emissions, despite the best available evidence. When Obama’s inner circle includes advisers with this kind of religious zeal, we can predict that even more of the oil that we need to power our modern economy will be shunted onto rail lines, with all of their attendant pollution and safety hazards. But for fanatics, the facts don’t matter; it’s the cause that counts. And that’s what John Podesta and President Obama’s environmental allies are all about.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.

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