For a symbolic issue, the Keystone pipeline has sure caused a lot of damage—to Canadian-American relations, to Democrats, to President Obama. And it feeds, underscores, or reflects a variety of political divisions, some of them quite bitter.
I’ll get to Keystone’s victims shortly, but first the explanation of why the issue is purely symbolic. If the pipeline is built, it will carry oil from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. If it is not built, the crude oil will be transported either to Canada’s west coast or to New Brunswick, a maritime province in the east, where it will be refined for export.
The point is the oil won’t remain underground. It will be extracted, turned into gasoline, and keep cars running all over the world. That means blocking the pipeline, should the president decide to do that, will have no effect on greenhouse gases. That appears to make little difference to the environmental movement. It opposes fossil fuels and anything that facilitates their use, period.
There’s another reason the green lobby has exerted enormous pressure to kill Keystone. It’s a power play. If it works, the political clout of the movement will grow. And environmentalists are already a forceful special interest in Washington.
In 2011, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper got a telephone call from Obama. Earlier, the State Department had studied the environmental impact of the pipeline and concluded it would be minimal. Now, the president told Harper, a new environmental study was required to make sure an aquifer in Nebraska wouldn’t be affected.
The president assured Harper that the pipeline was only being delayed. Harper was irritated and said to be worried the pipeline was in jeopardy. But the problem of the aquifer was solved when the pipeline’s promoters agreed to change its route. Obama continued to postpone a decision.
That Keystone matters enormously to Canada is putting it mildly. It’s important to their economy. The alternatives to Keystone would be less efficient. Both major political parties—Liberals and Harper’s Conservatives—support developing the country’s natural resources. And there aren’t many better places to do it than northern Alberta. I’ve been there. It’s pretty desolate. Edmonton, the nearest city, is 274 miles away.
Canada happens to be America’s closest ally and biggest trading partner. And Canadians are understandably sensitive to how Big Brother to the south treats them. Keystone is a test of our friendship. By dragging his decision into a sixth year, Obama has treated Canada shabbily, Harper in particular. Relations haven’t ruptured, but they’ve taken a hit, especially now that Obama appears ready to oppose the pipeline officially.
Except for warding off the wrath of enviros, Democrats on Capitol Hill have done themselves no favor by opposing the pipeline. Keystone is popular. A USA Today poll last month found 60 percent of Americans want it built. Only 25 percent don’t.
In November, Democratic senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana learned that opposing the pipeline was more critical to her Democratic colleagues than boosting her slim chance of reelection. A big Democratic vote for Keystone, which she supports, would demonstrate her influence. But only 14 of 54 Democrats voted with her. In the House, 31 of 201 Democrats did. A few weeks later, she lost her bid for reelection, 56 to 44 percent.
For his part, Obama has shown a poor grasp of economics in downplaying the pipeline’s benefits. It would help Canada send oil everywhere except the United States, he has said repeatedly, so “it doesn’t have an impact on U.S. gas prices.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page corrected him: “Oil markets are global, and adding to the global supply might well reduce U.S. gas prices.”
The president normally touts the job-generating power of large infrastructure projects. But in the case of Keystone, he has suggested construction of the 1,179-mile pipeline would create few jobs. The State Department’s projection, however, is that it would create 42,000 jobs and add $3.5 billion to the economy.
Meanwhile, until it’s built or canceled, Keystone will be involved, directly or indirectly, in political rifts. There’s Obama’s controversial practice of being tough on allies, soft on adversaries. In December, he was easy in normalizing relations with Communist Cuba, dropping the precondition that all Cuban political prisoners be released. In contrast, he was brusque with Canada, implying its motive for the pipeline is bigger profits for Canadian oil companies.