The raucous Keystone XL pipeline argument is drowning out serious discussions about bigger, broader and far more important choices, says David Pumphrey of the Energy and National Security Program at Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The focus is on things that are iconic rather that fundamental," to the vexed and vital debate over combatting man-made climate change while maintaining secure energy supplies, he said Tuesday. "The focus on one pipeline takes away from broader energy issues, which are being seen through the keyhole of Keystone," he said.
Mr. Pumphrey was speaking prior to a panel discussion Tuesday evening at the Newseum that includes leading environmentalists opposing the project, business groups championing it, and Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the United States who has lobbied long and hard to win a go-ahead for the controversial scheme to ship Alberta oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries.
Although both sides expect, in fact are demanding, that President Barack Obama make a decision soon – within a few months – Mr. Pumphrey, a former senior official at the Department of Energy, believes the administration may, again, kick the can down the road.
"It is really a tough decision and on tough decisions, people look for ways not to decide," Mr. Pumphrey said before the panel on The Future for Energy, Environment & Trade between Canada and the United States.
Mr. Obama already punted once on Keystone, putting off the decision on the politically-charged pipeline until after last November's election. Now, with his second, and last, term in the Oval Office secured, the president has promised – in both his inaugural address and the State of the Union speech – to take action on climate change.
On both sides of the Keystone debate, that has been widely seen as a signal Mr. Obama might opt for the seemingly easy decision to reject Keystone. Some say this is easier for the president because it doesn't require Congress, only affects a relatively small amount of oil in the overall energy picture and that oil is foreign, meaning Canadian.
The loud and angry public debate over the Keystone XL pipeline decision; often simplistically reduced to the Hobbesian choice between snubbing Canada, close friend and vital trading partner, or outraging the growing green movement seeking action to curb man-made global warming, obscures more important, and far larger issues, Mr. Pumphrey said.
He also believes there may be two powerful, political, arguments against a quick, clean, rejection of Keystone, even though John Kerry, the new State Secretary, widely considered a hawk on climate change, may be inclined to block the proposal.
"There's a strong desire not to (deliver) a rejection message to Canada," Mr. Pumphrey said. Not only has the Harper government, with increasingly public stridency, made clear it regards Keystone as a test of whether the importance and closeness of the relationship goes beyond fine phrases but also because of the real risk of damaging the far larger overall trade relationship between the world's most closely intertwined economies. "That's why I think that rather than a clear rejection there may be an effort to buy more time," Mr. Pumphrey said.
Similarly, he argued, a flat 'No' to Keystone, rather than satisfying the burgeoning environmental movements which is trying to break out of the activist-group size into a broad, political movement, might embolden them. "It would be seen as a major victory and they would redouble their efforts," he said, perhaps focusing on another contentious issue such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
For the president to move forward on the whole climate change issue and for Congress to be re-engaged requires that the debate shift away from touchstone issues like Keystone and examine the larger, fundamental issues of shifting energy use and generation over decades. "We've got to get away from the knee-jerk, political responses," he said.