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Keystone Kops

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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It's not often officials from the nation’s largest business lobby and an AFL-CIO-affiliated union speak to one another, let alone work together. But last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and North America’s Building Trades Unions held a joint press conference on Capitol Hill in support of the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby that same day, exactly five years after Trans-Canada Corp. applied for a permit to build the pipeline, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing whose title said it all: “Keystone’s Red Tape Anniversary: Five Years of Bureaucratic Delay and Economic Benefits Denied.” 

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Both events featured a bipartisan group of policymakers and experts whose statements ranged from puzzlement to pique that the Obama administration still hadn’t adjudicated TransCanada’s application. Keystone’s five-year review has taken “far longer than any other cross-border pipeline project and more than twice as long as it will take to build the pipeline,” Building Trades president Sean McGarvey said. Lucian Pugliaresi, president of the Energy Policy Research Foundation, declared at the hearing, “It’s not something that should have created all this furor.”

Nobody thought it would take the president this long to make a decision on the $12 billion venture that would move nearly 1,000,000 barrels of oil a day. Pundits predicted he would approve the pipeline soon after his reelection last year, once he could afford to alienate the environmental groups that oppose the plan. But Obama’s indecisiveness knows no bounds, as we just saw with the Syria debacle. The president declared the Middle Eastern country would face serious strikes after using deadly chemical weapons, then backtracked, sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Congress and abroad to make a confused case for an abbreviated battle the American public didn’t want. Now Obama has suggested that the ultimate authority for Keystone lies with that same, humiliated functionary. The State Department released its final environmental impact report two years ago, finding Keystone would have “no significant impacts.” The president insisted then that more research needed to be done and recently told the New York Times that it was “John Kerry’s decision or recommendation” that would finally end the debate.

The State Department is involved only because the pipeline would cross an international border, so it seems ridiculous for the president to pass off his duty to Kerry. But Keystone might well turn out to be a matter of state and security. Refiners say Canadian oil could replace up to half the 2 million barrels imported each day to the Gulf Coast from less friendly countries. Consulting group IHS CERA, Forbes reports, believes “that if the tar sands don’t come from Canada then heavy crude oils—with similar attributes—would be shipped from Venezuela.” The environmental impact would remain the same; the difference is that America would be doing business with (and contributing to the economy of) an unfriendly dictatorship rather than a close friend.

Neither Obama nor Kerry will decide whether the tar sands of Alberta will be developed. It’s not a matter of if the fuel below ground will be extracted, but when—and for whom. The Chinese government has already begun making purchases in an attempt to secure these resources for itself. If the administration rejects Keystone—or even just continues to delay its decision—it’s likely that Canadian oil will instead be sent to China. Environmentalists haven’t explained how shipping oil across the Pacific by boat will result in a smaller carbon footprint than piping it down to Louisiana. They certainly haven’t considered what it might mean to cede control over a vast resource to our biggest (and least friendly) competitor.

That’s not why North America’s Building Trades Unions joined forces with the Chamber of Commerce to urge approval of the project, of course. Both groups—and the American public—have something more pressing in mind: jobs. The president’s own State Department estimated that the initial construction period of the pipeline would result in over 42,000 jobs a year. But Obama then claimed, in his New York Times interview, that “this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction” and “between 50 and 100 [chuckles] jobs” afterwards (sneering sound in original).

To be fair, the president’s indecision has created quite a number of new jobs—for lobbyists and activists. Bloomberg reported last week that “lobbyists representing more than 50 groups” have spent $1 million in television ads alone this year, after spending almost $16 million during the election, “making it one of Washington’s most protracted and pricey lobbying campaigns.” The money hasn’t changed the public’s mind, however: Multiple surveys indicate Americans want the pipeline approved, by a two-to-one margin. A recent Pew Research Center Poll found 66 percent in favor, with only 23 percent opposed.

So the environmentalists are bringing out the big guns. The Natural Resources Defense Council just launched an Internet campaign featuring pleas from Hollywood stars. In one blog post, Robert Redford wrote, “If you ask me, tar sands oil is exactly the type of dirty oil we can no longer afford.” Nobody asked him, of course. And it’s a shame that any measure of oil independence and job creation depends on the permission of a single, indecisive prima donna.

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