Keystone XL: Good Policy Plagued by Bad Politics

The history of the Keystone XL pipeline is a sordid tale of politics at its worst.

In 2011, President Obama delayed the decision until after the 2012 presidential elections, citing the fact that he was concerned about the route the pipeline took. TransCanada, who is constructing the pipeline, promptly worked to change the route. With that excuse off the table, Obama then said it would not be built unless there was a guarantee that it would not impact greenhouse gas emissions. A report from the State Department would subsequently reveal that the pipeline would not worsen carbon pollution.

In fact, the report argues that not constructing the pipeline could have harmful environmental impacts because Canada would still extract the oil, but it would be transported by rail to the West Coast for export to China rather than shipped through the pipeline. Although the report doesn’t specifically mention it, the carbon footprint would be further expanded by shipping it across the Pacific Ocean by boat and then used in China, which has far worse pollution standards than the United States.

That wasn’t even the first time that Obama’s State Department had studied the Keystone and determined it to be environmentally sound. The initial Environmental Safety report found that the project “would have a degree of safety greater than any typically constructed domestic oil system under current regulations.

Despite all of that 2012 came and went with no movement on approval of the project. The White House had the presidential elections behind them, but now they had the midterms to worry about. More specifically, they had campaign coffers to worry about.

Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge-fund manager who would ultimately become the largest donor from either party, promised not to give a dime to any candidate who supported the Keystone XL. Indeed, his political action committee went so far as to fund an ad campaign against Sen. Mary Landrieu because she supported the pipeline due to the positive economic impact it would have in Louisiana. Sen. Landrieu would ultimately lose her Senate seat.

This puts the White House political team in a serious bind. On the one hand, they can’t approve the project because environmental groups are a key component of their constituency and large donors to their campaigns. But on the other hand, two-thirds of Americans favor building the pipeline and Democrats from energy-rich states are getting antsy to pass the bill. A Pew poll even showed that religious Democrats, young Democrats and the most moderate Democratic leaners even supported the project two-to-one.

That’s why the president’s strategy has been to delay, delay and then delay some more.

The latest excuse was that President Obama did not want to jump the gun on approving the project until an outstanding court case in Nebraska was decided. The case was ultimately about whether the state legislature could pass a bill to approve the pipeline even though it bypassed the state public service commission.

“There continues to be an outstanding question about the route of the pipeline through one part of Nebraska, and that related to an ongoing legal matter in Nebraska,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday, explaining why he would veto legislation to fast track the approval process.

But that excuse was removed from the White House’s quiver on Friday when the court ruled that the Nebraska statute was constitutional. Comically, the administration took to the press podium again to say that the court case, which was once the reason for their disapproval, really didn’t mean anything at all.

“Regardless of the Nebraska ruling today, the House bill still conflicts with longstanding legislative branch procedures regarding the authority of the President . . . and if presented to the President, he will veto the bill,” White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters.

Give us a break. The State Department has had six years to review the Keystone XL pipeline, every review they’ve done has shown that there will be no negative environmental impact, and there are no more legal hurdles to be jumped. This administration is never going to act. That’s why the House passed a bill on Friday to approve the pipeline and the Senate is likely to follow in the coming weeks. The president will finally be forced to make a decision. We’re betting it’s the wrong one.