The Cost of President Obama's Keystone XL Dithering

Politics gets in the way of the TransCanada project that would have brought jobs and energy.

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It's not right to compare the Obama administration's performance in the matter of the Keystone XL pipeline to the Keystone Kops. Yes, the bunglers of the Charlie Chaplin silent movies are so busy blowing whistles that they arrest the victim while the bad guy makes off with the swag. But that was very funny, and the confused cops didn't know what they were doing. The administration knows full well what it is doing.

It has not gone so far as to kill the proposed 1,700-mile underground pipeline to carry crude oil from Canada to American refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That might play badly against the president's vision in his State of the Union address of "a future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world" (which stand to get a lot less stable, the way things are going). Instead, in Machiavelli's dictum, the president has been willing to wound but afraid to strike. He has contrived an excuse to delay a decision yet again. An environmental impact statement was issued by the State Department on Aug. 26, 2011, the conclusion of three years of reviews and negotiation. The approval process typically takes from 18 months to two years. That's understandable given the variety of concerns and interests a massive project entails about safeguarding water supplies, disturbing local landowners and communities, and restoring the landscape.

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The original Keystone pipeline won approval after two years and is operational. But in 2013, the Keystone XL (extension) will be in its fourth year of review, a Great Dither not justified when the State Department conducted three consecutive environmental reviews to reach its conclusion of minimal environmental impact. In that time, there have been many public hearings to satisfy local communities and private property owners. More than a dozen alternative routes have been surveyed, and TransCanada Corp., the builder, agreed to 57 special conditions beyond current federal pipeline regulations.

The president wants a relatively short section of the route from Alberta through Nebraska reconsidered. It means the State Department will have to agree to a new understanding with Nebraska and secure the governor's approval. Given the long history of Keystone XL, that is not a big deal. By all accounts, it could be done within a couple of months. Yet after three years of satisfying intense reviews, the president says that decision will not come until 2013. Hello? That wouldn't have anything to do, would it, with appeasing a particular left-wing environmental lobby until after the general election?

[Check out the U.S. News On Energy blog.]

It's a calculation which assumes that the voters concerned about the energy future that Obama paraded will be less active than the more extreme environmental lobbyists—who, in fact, will never be satisfied with anything to do with villainous Big Oil. Throwing a sop to the leftist anti-oil campaigners and "four more years" are apparently more important to the president and his campaign advisers than reducing our dependence on those unstable regions he mentioned and maintaining the momentum of the small improvement in the lamentable unemployment totals.

Notably, the Great Keystone Dither does not appeal to labor or indeed to all Democrats. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia put it well: "I'd rather buy from our closest ally and create jobs in America than push Canada to build a pipeline out to the West Coast of North America so that it ends up going to China. There is no question, this pipeline is a job creator with support of both labor and business. It needs to be built not for the benefit of one political party or one state, but for the benefit of America."

A final go-ahead for the $7 billion shovel-ready project would have supported tens of thousands of jobs now: 20,000 in new, direct well-paid construction and manufacturing jobs, and roughly 100,000 in indirect jobs along the pipeline, according to the developer, TransCanada. But the president's political concerns seem more important than enraging the Canadians, than giving China more edge in economic competition, than the defense and national security interests of truly independent energy.