Skip to main content

Protesters rally against the Keystone XL oil pipeline outside the White House in Washington on Feb. 3, 2014.YURI GRIPAS/Reuters

Keystone XL is not about Canada. It's about the United States, backers and foes of the controversial pipeline say.

The bitter adversaries in the battle over a controversial pipeline to funnel Alberta oil-sands crude to U.S. refineries do not agree on much. But both sides say it is an American debate, an American clash over the future of energy priority.

"It's politics, American politics, and has little to do with Canada," said David Biette, the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "It's not a U.S. against Canada issue. Keystone XL is a proxy for a larger discussion that isn't happening on how we see our energy future, and it's filled with emotion and false statements all around."

The two sides squaring off in the Keystone XL debate include the U.S. environmental movement, industries, unions, and landowners. The parade of Canadian premiers and ministers – most recently Foreign Minister John Baird pointedly noting that President Barack Obama should consider "the importance that our government places on this project as a close friend and ally of the United States" – goes largely unnoticed except in Canada and by the Canadian media.

The recent release of the U.S. State Department's final environmental impact statement on the proposal had been expected to clear the way for the answer Canada has been awaiting. But a week later – and with both sides in the U.S. debate claiming the assessment backs their own position – the Keystone XL decision remains what it has always been: a tough political call for Mr. Obama.

One Washington insider, an ardent backer of the proposed pipeline, believes the administration will move quickly to give it the green light. "POTUS will approve it by summer," the insider said, using the common Washington acronym for president of the United States, and adding that doing so would take it off the agenda before Democrats face Republican challengers in the fall mid-term election campaign.

By that calculation, the Keystone question unresolved would be a problem for vulnerable Democrat senators like Louisiana's Mary Landrieu. Ms. Landrieu, who is in line to chair the Energy Committee if she is re-elected and the Democrats hold the Senate, is not talking about Canada.

"In the United States, we already have 2.6 million miles of pipeline transporting oil, gas and refined products that this country needs for its own economic vitality," Ms. Landrieu said, adding she is "struggling to understand why the 800 additional miles in the Keystone XL pipeline are facing such delay."

The reason is that powerful forces that matter to Mr. Obama want the Keystone XL proposal killed as proof the President was not just blowing hot air when he spoke about not despoiling the planet future generations.

"We are optimistic because Americans who know about KXL and tar sands are intensely opposed," said Kate Colarulli of the Sierra Club Beyond Oil campaign. Referring to nation-wide vigils after the State Department report was released, she said: "Thousands of people who are willing to brave freezing temperatures to show their President that they oppose KXL. … Well, it's enough to convince me that when final decision time comes, the President will recognize that he has more to gain by saying no to tar sands and yes to clean energy than he gains by permitting any project that supports the environmental Armageddon happening in the tar sands."

So it is about the politics of oil, not about oil.

Some Keystone XL backers believe the opponents have little left to argue. "With their case in shambles, opponents will be forced to rely on political pressure," said Matt Dempsey, spokesman for Oil Sands Fact Check, which is backed by the oil sector, adding that Mr. Obama "should move swiftly to approve."

Like the draft before it, the final environmental impact statement can – and is – being read to suit the positions of Keystone proponents and adversaries.

"The environmental review shows most of the tar sands flowing through Keystone XL will be exported and very few jobs will be created," Anthony Swift of the National Resources Defense Council wrote.

But spinning the report – in either direction – is not likely to change the situation.

"This is President Obama's decision and his alone – and he has all the information he needs to reject the Keystone XL pipeline," said Jason Kowalski, policy director at

Mr. Biette puts it this way: The release of the environmental impact statement means "everything is changed. … No, really, little has."

Would another delay – Mr. Obama booted the decision until after he had secured his second four-year term in 2012 – help, or hurt, his political allies? And will Keystone XL define the President's legacy more than energy future of the United States?

So it's not about providing Canada with an answer.

And in its assessment, Barclays Research, a unit of the London-based financial services giant, bet the situation is going to drag on. The impact statement "does not, in our view, necessarily expedite the approval of the proposed Keystone XL permit; in fact, we believe that the final decision-making process will likely be protracted and final presidential approval remains in doubt," it said.