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.