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Keystone, Obama, and Leadership

8:08 AM, Feb 9, 2012 • By JIM PREVOR
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Joe Nocera, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has an astonishing piece titled, “Poisoned Politics of Keystone XL.” Most of the piece rehashes criticism of President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which is designed to bring oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to the United States:

Environmental concerns notwithstanding, America will be using oil — and lots of it — for the foreseeable future. It is the fundamental means by which we transport ourselves, whether by air, car or truck. Where do we get that oil? Mostly from countries that don’t like us, like Venezuela, which has the world’s second-largest oil reserves. 

And here is Canada, a staunch American ally that has historically sold us virtually all of its crude exports.  Over the past two decades, energy companies have invested tens of billions of dollars in the tar sands, so much so that Canada now ranks No. 3 in estimated oil reserves. Along with the natural gas that can now be extracted thanks to hydraulic fracturing — which, of course, all right-thinking environmentalists also oppose — the oil from the Canadian tar sands ought to be viewed as a great gift that has been handed to North America.  These two relatively new sources of fossil fuels offer America its first real chance in decades to become, if not energy self-sufficient, at least energy secure, no longer beholden to OPEC.   Yet these gifts have been transformed, like everything else, into political footballs.  

In Canada, the Keystone XL controversy has created a surprising new resolve.  “Keystone was a transformative turning point in terms of how Harper sees the bilateral relationship,” says Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.  Instead of blithely assuming the United States would purchase its oil, Canada is now determined to find diverse buyers so it won’t be held hostage by American politics.  Hence, the newfound willingness to do business with China.  Canada has concluded that it simply can’t expect much from the United States, even on an issue that would seem to be vital to our own interests.

The real issue is not the pipeline but environmentalists who want to shut down the tar sands project, Nocera explains:

As it turns out, the environmental movement doesn’t just want to shut down Keystone.  Its real goal, as I discovered when I spoke recently to Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, is much bigger.  “The effort to stop Keystone is part of a broader effort to stop the expansion of the tar sands,” Brune said.  “It is based on choking off the ability to find markets for tar sands oil.”

However, this is both bad policy and most unlikely to happen:

This is a ludicrous goal.  If it were to succeed, it would be deeply damaging to the national interest of both Canada and the United States.  But it has no chance of succeeding.  Energy is the single most important industry in Canada.  Three-quarters of the Canadian public agree with the Harper government’s diversification strategy.  China’s “thirst” for oil is hardly going to be deterred by the Sierra Club. And the Harper government views the continued development of the tar sands as a national strategic priority.

Yet despite all this, the gist of Nocera’s column is not to chastise the president for making a bad decision, he, instead, blames our “poisoned politics.” In fact, he explains away the president’s decision:

I realize that President Obama rejected Keystone because, politically, he had no choice.  My guess is that, in his centrist heart of hearts, the president wanted to approve it.  But to give the go-ahead before the election was to risk losing the support of the environmentalists who make up an important part of his base… 

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