Dissing the National Interest

For President Obama, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline should have been a no-brainer. All the State Department had to do was conclude the obvious – the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.

What other reasonable conclusion is possible? Building the 1,700-mile, shovel-ready, $7-billion, private sector-funded project would create thousands of construction jobs, stimulate tens of billions of dollars in business spending, and generate billions of dollars in tax revenues.

Once operational, the pipeline would displace oil imported from undemocratic, unfriendly, or unstable countries with up to 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from our friendly, stable, democratic neighbor to the north. Canada already ships us more oil than all Persian Gulf states combined, and Keystone would significantly expand our self-reliance on North American energy.

Obama had only two policy choices. He could either disapprove the pipeline on the grounds that environmental concerns over incremental greenhouse gas emissions and oil spill risk outweigh Keystone’s substantial economic, fiscal, and energy security benefits. Or he could approve Keystone on the grounds that its benefits outweigh its potential environmental impacts.

Obama did neither. Instead, he punted a final decision until first quarter 2013, that is, after the November 2012 elections. Despite White House denials, political calculations appear to have dictated his decision not to decide.

Had Obama approved the pipeline, he would have alienated the green wing of his political base. “Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune told reporters recently that Obama’s decision on the pipeline would ‘have a very big impact’ on how the nation’s largest environmental group funnels resources toward congressional races rather than the race for the White House,” Politico reported two weeks ago. Green groups made Keystone a “litmus test” for Obama. As one blogger put it, “if the president cannot stand with the environmental community against the pipeline, some say, why should they stand with him at all?”

On the other hand, had Obama disapproved the pipeline, he would have alienated parts of his union base, such as the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters. In addition, outright disapproval would make Obama more vulnerable to GOP criticism that he cares more about green ideology than about job creation and energy security.

Former Shell Oil exec John Hofmeister concisely explained Obama’s political calculus: “It’s much easier to avoid a decision than to make a decision,” and delay allows Obama to dangle the hope before each group that he’ll eventually decide in their favor. Some might even work harder for his re-election, believing that Obama will approve or disapprove the pipeline in 2013 depending on which group delivers more campaign contributions and votes in 2012.

Accordingly, the political challenge for Keystone supporters is to persuade organized labor that Obama has effectively killed the pipeline already. That’s what top anti-Keystone organizer Bill McKibben proclaimed in a recent fund raising letter: “The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that we’ve been fighting for months has been effectively killed. The President didn’t outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline permit, but a few minutes ago he sent the pipeline back for a thorough re-review that will delay it ‘til 2013. Most analysts agree: the pipeline will never get built.”

Although many Keystone foes in Nebraska are NIMBYs, the Occupy Washington crowd does not want it built anywhere. As actress Margot Kidder said on the day she got arrested outside the White House: “It’s bound to leak, there’s no way it’s not going to. They always assure us these things are safe, and they never are.” By that logic, no pipeline should ever be built, all should be dismantled, and, since tankers also have accidents, all commerce in oil should stop. And then we could all live in medieval squalor: Planet Saved!

Not even a failsafe pipeline would satisfy McKibben. In the same fund raising letter, he writes: “There’s no way, with an honest review, that a pipeline that helps speed the tapping of the world’s second-largest pool of carbon can pass environmental muster.” He vows: “We’ll be stepping up our efforts in the months ahead, expanding our work to take on all the forms of ‘extreme energy’ now coming to the fore around the world: mountaintop removal coal mining, deep sea oil drilling, ‘fracking’ for gas and oil.”

McKibben seeks to create artificial shortages in the carbon-based fuels on which, like it or not, U.S. and global prosperity are going to depend for decades to come. He may even believe that a policy-induced energy crisis will finally jump-start the transition to a “clean energy future.” Presidents are supposed to take a more sober view of things.

Even if the President believes there are legitimate concerns with the existing pipeline route, he should still have affirmed that it is in the U.S. national interest to expand our access to secure, increasing, non-subsidized supplies of North American energy. Instead, Obama chose to play politics with the nation’s economic and energy future.