Keystone XL Is Dead—Again

Keystone XL Is Dead—Again

Obama killed the Keystone pipeline again—and Republicans are probably happy about it. 


For the second time in as many months, the Obama administration has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline—a hugely controversial project that would traverse the length of the country from Nebraska to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying heavy and dirty tar sands oil from deep in Canada.

You’ll recall that, following a summer of protests and civil disobedience, the administration announced in November that it was delaying the project for at least a year, until a less disruptive route around a key aquifer in Nebraska could be studied and proposed. (Many believe this delay would kill the project entirely).

But Republicans successfully revived the project during the end-of-year negotiations on the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance. Democrats desperately wanted these measures, and the final bill included a provision that would force the State Department to issue a decision on Keystone within two months.

Today—less than even one month since the payroll tax cut bill was passed—the State Department announced they were denying the permit. In a statement, President Obama endorsed that decision: “As the State Department made clear last month, the rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment.”

That’s a crucially important point for understanding the politics of this pipeline fiasco. Republicans—or at the very least, the leadership—knew full well that this rushed, two-month review would not lead to a sudden approval of the project. As Obama noted, the State Department said as much in December.

So why did Republicans insist upon its inclusion into the payroll/unemployment debate? Well, for one thing, in case you’ve forgotten the dynamics of that showdown, House Speaker John Boehner was desperate to round up votes for the extensions. Republican leaders were convinced that opposing a payroll tax cut and help for the unemployed was politically toxic, but the Tea Party members of the House didn’t agree. So early on in the process, the Keystone provision was added as a sweetener to bring recalcitrant Republicans on board.

But beyond simply whipping votes, Republicans clearly believe that the Keystone issue is good politics for them. They are happy to make Obama kill it not once but twice, because it allows them to paint him as quashing (allegedly) shovel-ready, job-creating projects just “to protect left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco,” in the typically restrained words of Newt Gingrich.

Obama’s rejection of the pipeline is a vehicle to paint him as a job-killer, at a time when private-sector job growth actually continues to be positive. And behold the mileage they attempted to put on their new ride today, immediately following the announcement.

Here’s Boehner:

“This is not good for our country,” [Boehner] continued. “The president wants to put this off until it’s convenient for him to make a decision. That means after the next election. The fact is the American people are asking the question right now: Where are the jobs? The president’s got an opportunity to create 100,000 new jobs almost immediately.” […]

“The policies that have been implemented by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress they had that preceded us have made the economy worse and have made it more difficult for small businesses to create jobs,” he said.

GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney:

“It shows a President who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy,” the former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential frontrunner said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “If Americans want to understand why unemployment in the United States has been stuck above 8 percent for the longest stretch since the Great Depression, decisions like this one are the place to begin.”

The US Chamber of Commerce:

“This political decision offers hard evidence that creating jobs is not a high priority for this administration,” said Thomas Donahue, the chamber’s chief executive officer. “The president’s decision sends a strong message to the business community and to investors: Keep your money on the sidelines, America is not open for business. By placing politics over policy, the Obama administration is sacrificing tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs in the short term, and many more than that in the long term.”

For the record, the Keystone project would create very few jobs. But it’s easy to sell the construction of such a huge project as a job creator. Republicans, at this point, are much less interested in actually reviving the project—forcing the two-month decision nearly guaranteed its rejection—than they are with empty political theatre around jobs.

This is one of those issues, like say the Bush tax cuts, where both sides think they have a political winner. The White House clearly thinks this is good for them, as it shores up environmentalist voters and helps prove itself to the left at large. (If the Keystone pipeline rejection isn’t included in an Obama campaign blog, e-mail, or stump speech, I’ll give $10 to everyone who reads this blog).

Some progressives are understandably concerned that the White House is being a little too politically clever—that the project will be approved after the election. I’ve seen no evidence this is true, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

But what’s going to happen for at least the next year is a prolonged public debate over whether a small amount of jobs are a worthy price to pay for further destroying the climate, polluting American land and water, and enriching oil companies—with the White House laudably taking the strong position that it’s not.

UPDATE: Talking Point Memo’s Brian Beutler spoke to some anonymous GOP aides who confirmed that they preferred beating Obama up on the pipeline rather than actually reviving it:

They relished the idea of forcing President Obama to take a public stand on the pipeline early in an election year, instead of after the election as he had wanted.

And they were eager to force him to choose between supporters in the labor movement, some of whom are pushing for the pipeline, and others in the environmental movement who vehemently oppose it. So they decided to go for it.At the same time they knew he’d likely have to reject the project, and for them that created a dilemma.

“It’s a question of whether we’d rather have the pipeline or the issue,” said one of the GOP aides. Black or white.

In the end they chose the issue.

One wonders how happy big-oil donors to the GOP are with this development. 

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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