The Pipeline Rejection That Wasn’t

When I heard early on Wednesday that President Obama was going to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, I laughed. I laughed again when I saw the response of environmental groups to the announcement. Here is the president’s statement on the matter:

Today, the Department of State recommended to President Obama that the presidential permit for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline be denied and, that at this time, the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline be determined not to serve the national interest. The President concurred with the Department’s recommendation, which was predicated on the fact that the Department does not have sufficient time to obtain the information necessary to assess whether the project, in its current state, is in the national interest.

Since 2008, the Department has been conducting a transparent, thorough, and rigorous review of TransCanada’s permit application for the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline project. As a result of this process, particularly given the concentration of concerns regarding the proposed route through the Sand Hills area of Nebraska, on November 10, 2011, the Department announced that it could not make a national interest determination regarding the permit application without additional information. Specifically, the Department called for an assessment of alternative pipeline routes that avoided the uniquely sensitive terrain of the Sand Hills in Nebraska. The Department estimated, based on prior projects of similar length and scope, that it could complete the necessary review to make a decision by the first quarter of 2013. In consultations with the State of Nebraska and TransCanada, they agreed with the estimated timeline.

On December 23, 2011, the Congress passed the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 (“the Act”). The Act provides 60 days for the President to determine whether the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest – which is insufficient for such a determination.

The Department’s denial of the permit application does not preclude any subsequent permit application or applications for similar projects.

Many of the environmental groups that opposed the project immediately began heaping praise on the president for this decision. The National Wildlife Federation said:

“Most politicians today buckle to the kind of threats made recently by oil lobbyists, but President Obama is doing the right thing by standing up for the families who are fighting to protect their clean water from the Keystone export pipeline.

“Big Oil wants to ram this pipeline down the throats of American families in their insatiable appetite for more profits. Keystone XL is a scam. Canada would get the jobs, China would get the oil, and America would get spills of toxic tar sands oil. The National Wildlife Federation’s 4 million supporters from across the political spectrum believe that clean water, wildlife and the rights of American families should come before the power of big oil companies.”

Friends of the Earth said:

“President Obama has shown bold leadership in standing up to Big Oil and rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “The climate movement took on Goliath and won, demonstrating its growing strength. Sustained grassroots pressure aimed at holding the president accountable to the public interest proved more powerful than all the lobbyists and campaign cash the oil industry could muster.” …

“Today’s announcement is a welcome example of President Obama following through on his promise that corporate polluter lobbyists will no longer set the agenda in Washington,” said Pica. “The Keystone XL pipeline would have been dirty at both ends, dangerous in between, and certainly not in our national interest. Big Oil and its bought-and-paid-for confederates in Congress couldn’t drown this dirty reality despite all of their threats and bullying.”

“This defeat for Big Oil is a huge victory for the health and safety of Americans. It belongs to the indigenous communities who first sounded the alarm on the dangers of tar sands extraction, to the Nebraskan farmers and Texan ranchers who withstood TransCanada’s bullying in the name of their land and livelihoods, to the activists from across the country who were arrested on the president’s doorstep, and to all of us fighting for a safe climate and justice-fueled future,” said Pica.

They are living in a fantasy world. Notice the last sentence of the president’s statement, which I put in bold for emphasis. This is not a rejection of the pipeline, it is at most a delay. It’s a way for him to play both sides, as he so often does, until after the November election. TransCanada will now submit an amended permit, perhaps rerouting around parts of Nebraska, the State Department will take the next year to think about it, and then it will be approved.

In the real world, that is the best that could ever reasonably be hoped for. There is far too much money at stake and far too many powerful interests here for that project to get denied by a president from either party. The best that could be hoped for is that the permit is approved with conditions that require stronger safety measures to prevent leaks and perhaps rerouting it around some particularly sensitive areas. Make no mistake about it, the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved and built after the election, whether Obama is in the White House or not.

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