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Trump Reverses Obama Rejection of Keystone XL Pipeline

President Trump today signed two presidential memoranda aimed at reviving the Keystone XL Pipeline and rescuing the Dakota Access Pipeline from death by regulatory delay. Pipeline proponent Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) provided this summary of the orders:

One order directs all federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to expedite approval of the easement to complete construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Another order invites the Trans Canada Corporation to resubmit its application for the Keystone XL Pipeline and directs the State Department to expedite its review. “Today’s executive orders affirm President Trump’s respect for the rule of law and his support for responsible infrastructure development, energy production and job creation,” said Cramer.

President Obama rejected TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL on November 6, 2015—more than seven years after the company first applied to the State Department for a cross-border permit. Through continual delays in deciding whether to grant or deny the permit, Obama invited green pressure groups to wage a multi-year campaign to demonize the pipeline. Their attacks on the Keystone XL as a climate scourge were ridiculous.

As Cato Institute scientist Chip Knappenberger pointed out, using the EPA’s climate sensitivity estimates, even if we make the totally unrealistic assumption that all Keystone crude is additional petroleum that would otherwise remain in the ground, running the pipeline at full capacity for 1,000 years would add less than 1/10th of one degree Celsius to global warming. Climatologically, the Keystone XL is irrelevant.

For Obama, however, the political utility of the Keystone controversy was huge. The protracted battle over the pipeline mobilized thousands of green activists to work for Democratic candidates in the 2012 and 2014 elections.  

Obama’s explanation of his “National Interest Determination” to reject the Keystone XL was all about appearances and devoid of substance: “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change, and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership.” Stunning. Did Obama really believe other nations would not join the Paris Agreement if he approved the Keystone XL? That the pipeline was some kind of make-or-break “tipping point,” not just for the planet, but also for treaty negotiations to “save the planet”? It doesn’t get much sillier than that.

Among the ironies of this phony controversy is that the State Department’s environmental reviews repeatedly found the Keystone XL to be the climate-friendly option. State reasoned as follows. The commercial viability of the Canadian oil sands industry and the import of Canadian crude into the United States are determined by global economics, not the fate of one infrastructure project. Deny the Keystone XL, and the oil will still get here, it will just come via alternate modes of delivery—barges, trains, smaller pipelines—that are less energy efficient and less safe than the proposed Keystone XL. Thus, rejecting the Keystone XL would actually lead to a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions, oil spills, and industrial accidents.

Given that assessment, and considering the pipeline’s potential to create thousands of construction jobs, generate millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues, reduce oil transport costs, and improve rather than roil U.S.-Canadian relations, approving the Keystone XL was clearly in the national interest.

The controversy over the Keystone XL Pipeline was an artifice of green politics. We live in an age where many politically-active people are imbued with an irrational hatred of the fuels that have done so much to make our naturally dangerous climate vastly more livable, and who imagine that government exists to bankrupt industries they don’t like. Obama both incited and appeased that noisy faction. For further discussion, see my Power Point presentation on the ersatz Keystone controversy.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that Obama’s rejection of Keystone, and the thousands of jobs the project would have created, itself helped persuade many blue collar Democrats to vote for Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who had promised to rebuild U.S. energy infrastructure and withdraw America from the Paris climate treaty.