Editorial: President Obama dithers on Keystone XL pipeline decision

Last modified: Tuesday, May 06, 2014
On Jan. 20, 2013, in his second Inaugural Address, President Obama vowed that “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. ... The path to sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

Great words. It’s the follow-through that’s complicated.

Consider the Keystone XL pipeline, a much-debated, often-postponed project of dubious value that the president is under intense pressure to approve — over the strong objections of many environmentalists and progressive Democrats who have been among Obama’s most loyal supporters.

We hope he’ll say no to Keystone, but that will take some spine. And right now, we’re seeing more foot-dragging than fortitude.

It’s been six years since TransCanada Corp. proposed Keystone XL, the final segment of a 1,700-mile pipeline bringing oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to American refineries on the Gulf Coast. Keystone XL would run from Alberta through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, where it would link to existing pipelines. Since it would cross the Canadian-U.S. boundary, TransCanada can’t build it without an OK from the State Department and a green-light from the president.

A decision was expected this spring. Last month, though, came word that the State Department wanted more time to weigh the matter and would wait until court issues involving the pipeline’s route through Nebraska are resolved.

The delay, the tea leaf readers said, was really about politics. Obama, they said, is in a political box. He doesn’t want to alienate his supporters — especially rich Democratic Party donors — by approving the pipeline before the 2014 midterm elections. Nixing it, on the other hand, could endanger Democratic candidates who back Keystone, and strengthen Republicans who will argue that Keystone will create jobs and foster America’s energy independence. Down that road, political analysts say, lies the very real chance that the U.S. Senate will tip into Republican hands.

The politics are dicey, but it’s the president’s job to sort through all of that, weigh the evidence, evaluate arguments for and against the pipeline — and make a decision.

On one side are those who say building the pipeline will create thousands of construction and supporting jobs and that it will promote energy independence, by working with an ally, Canada, reducing our dependence on less friendly oil-producing countries.

Critics argue that Keystone will promote global warming and risk environmental damage, while creating far fewer permanent jobs than supporters claim.

The tar sands oil lying beneath Alberta’s forests is a mix of sand, clay, water and bitumen, a carbon-rich form of petroleum. Extracting tar sands oil and processing it is a difficult, expensive, energy-intensive process that sends greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The resulting product that will be sent through the pipeline is, by all accounts, a thick, toxic substance that’s more polluting than conventional crude. Though TransCanada says Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built, there will always be a risk of leaks and spills that could cause significant, long-term harm to surrounding soil and water.

It’s not clear that building and maintaining the pipeline would be the job-creation bonanza proponents say it will be. The claims and counterclaims have been all over the map, depending on what was counted, and who’s doing the counting or funded the study.

House Speaker John Boehner says it will be about 100,000, including growth in non-energy businesses that support the pipeline. The State Department has cited estimates of 5,000 to 6,000 temporary jobs during construction; TransCanada says 9,000. President Obama has cited estimates of 2,000 construction jobs and 50 to 100 permanent jobs.

Everyone wants to see the U.S. economy create jobs — all the more reason to vigorously support the development of cleaner, renewable energy initiatives that are the direction the U.S. should move in. Moreover, if Keystone’s proponents in Congress are serious about job creation, there’s a lot more they could do to rebuild this country’s roads, bridges, trains and airports. We have an entire country in need of infrastructure improvements awaiting action.

Saying no to Keystone won’t stop the development of tar sands oil in its tracks; the Canadians, as many have pointed out, will likely continue what they started, transporting the product along routes in Canada for export.

But it will mean that the U.S. and its leaders will no longer simply double down on our use of fossil fuel sources that contribute to climate change and create environmental risks. It would signal that the best way for the U.S. to become energy independent over the long haul is to put our resources and best minds to work on developing renewable energy — and in the shorter term, to bolster efforts to increase vehicle efficiency and reduce power plant emissions.

We want to see President Obama make a decision, explain his thinking clearly and forcefully and chart a path forward. He set the bar in his second Inaugural Address; now he has to live up to his words.