The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline never ends. It has turned into the longest skirmish since the Hundred Years War. The latest salvo comes from green billionaire (and Obama donor) Tom Steyer, who’s behind a new TV ad warning Americans that the pipeline is a Chinese plot for world domination.
“Keystone is a sucker’s deal for America,” warns the ad, which was timed to coincide with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. It shows Stephen Harper shaking hands with former Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and warns that Canadian oil is now controlled by China. It’s China, not the U.S., that will really profit from our oil.
Keystone has been in limbo for nearly five years. The delay has cost millions, and frayed relations between the world’s two strongest allies. Who’s to blame for this mess? Is it the environmental movement, which has made Keystone a lightning rod for climate change and spread fear and misinformation at every step? Or is it the Harper government, which, critics say, has bungled the job? And what about the oil industry, which has been callous, insensitive, venal, ham-fisted and stupidly oblivious to the legitimate concerns of ordinary citizens?
You could argue it’s all of the above. Maybe the Obama administration would trust us more if the Harper government had a plan in place to reduce emissions. (U.S. emissions have fallen dramatically in recent years, but that’s not because of a deliberate emissions-reduction plan. It’s largely because of fracking.) Maybe our government should have been more diplomatic. And there’s no doubt the pipeline companies have vastly underestimated the task of building bridges with local communities.
But the real reasons for the Keystone mess have very little to do with us. Instead, they have everything to do with a witches’ brew of domestic U.S. politics.
In a masterly analysis in this week’s Maclean’s, Luiza Ch. Savage lays out the whole sorry saga. The opposition to Keystone didn’t begin with the environmental lobby. It began with a bunch of rural Republican ranchers in Nebraska, who were convinced their property rights were being trampled on. Then the environmentalists piled on. The fight split Nebraska in two. Mr. Obama was caught in the middle, between environmentalists who wanted action, and western politicians (many of them Democrats) who wanted jobs. Then came a series of disasters, starting with the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which cast a pall over the entire industry. As energy analyst Bob McNally told Ms. Savage, “Just about everything that could possibly go wrong, did.”
In hindsight,TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, should have done a lot of things differently. It should have been much nicer to the ranchers. It should have rerouted the pipeline away from environmentally sensitive areas right away. It should certainly have spent buckets more money on lobbying. But I’m not sure that even perfect execution would have made much difference. The company was caught up in contending forces that no one could have foreseen. What’s clear is that having the President be in charge of pipeline decisions – instead of an independent federal agency – is a terrible idea, because those decisions will inevitably be caught up in presidential politics. Keystone was kneecapped by presidential politics. It’s as simple as that.
What happens next is anybody’s guess. My guess is nothing, for now. The Obama administration is divided on Keystone, as is Mr. Obama himself. Keystone didn’t even get a mention in his State of the Union speech, which was more devoted to tackling inequality than to healing the planet. The President is a sensible man. According to a Reuters report this week, he doesn’t believe the extravagant claims of either side – either that Keystone will create a bonanza of jobs, or that it poses a serious environmental threat. Which means he really doesn’t want to make this decision, and would prefer to postpone it as long as he can.
That’s bad news for Canada. But it’s excellent news for lawyers and lobbyists, who are feasting on the proceeds of this costly fight, and not at all bad for environmentalists, who can keep the flame alive for now. Of course, even victory would be quixotic. Mr. Obama’s decision (as he surely knows himself) will hardly have an impact on world greenhouse gas emissions, because the oil will flow to market one way or another. Even, God help us, to the dastardly Chinese.