Skip to main content

Steve Yetiv is the Louis I. Jaffe Professor of International Relations at Old Dominion University. Jesse Richman is the school's director of graduate international studies.

President Barack Obama has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, to the disappointment of many Republicans in the United States, some pro-business forces and many in Canada, which raises a question: Why did he take this action and why at this time? The story is manifold and several reasons are probably in play.

On a personal level, Mr. Obama clearly feels strongly about climate change. He has taken the strongest action against climate change of any president in recent memory, pushing for such things as far higher fuel-economy standards, significant regulatory actions targeting coal and major climate-change agreements with China.

Even if he doesn't think that the pipeline will worsen climate change, many Americans and others around the world see it in that light. Therefore, he risks being perceived as weak on climate change if he accepts the pipeline, while rejecting it can make him appear tough at a sensitive time. Indeed, the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference presents what some see as a rare chance at achieving a binding, global climate-change agreement.

In terms of politics, major constituents in his own Democratic Party are strongly against the pipeline, largely because of environmental concerns. The pressure is severe enough that Hillary Clinton has swung against the pipeline in the presidential primary, even though she has a comfortable lead over Senator Bernie Sanders. What has changed is that environmental groups have mobilized much more effectively in recent years. They are a bona fide pressure group.

Another change is the growing U.S. skepticism about building pipelines in general. Opposition to Keystone has been the catalyst for vocal anti-pipeline movements. Groups have mobilized using environmental and land-owner-rights concerns to successfully kill or reroute pipeline plans across a number of U.S. states.

The election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also entered Mr. Obama's calculation. The President expressed the view that "we both agreed that our close friendship on a whole range of issues, including energy and climate change, should provide the basis for even closer co-ordination between our countries going forward."

Mr. Obama may have held back earlier partly out of concern about offending former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Trudeau also opposes an alternative export route for Canada's oil – the Northern Gateway pipeline. That may have increased the odds, in the President's judgment, that rejection of Keystone would actually reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Mr. Obama has also stressed that Keystone XL is good for Canada, but not for the United States. His view is that it will not create many American jobs over time and serves chiefly to transport Canadian oil to market. And, evidently, while he appreciates relations with Canada, he is willing to annoy many Canadians, presumably on the notion that they will forgive and that their sentiments do not outweigh the negatives of the pipeline.

For now, the Keystone pipeline is dead. But just as political changes have contributed to its defeat, a U.S. Republican presidential victory would almost certainly revive its prospects.