A recent column by Robert Samuelson on the Obama Administration’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline is so good that it’s worth walking through its key points.
First, Samuelson points out that even on its own terms, the decision achieves few if any benefits:
Aside from the political and public relations victory, environmentalists won’t get much. Stopping the pipeline won’t halt the development of tar sands, to which the Canadian government is committed; therefore, there will be little effect on global-warming emissions. Indeed, Obama’s decision might add to them. If Canada builds a pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific for export to Asia, moving all that oil across the ocean by tanker will create extra emissions. There will also be the risk of added spills.
This is a critical point. Environmental groups opposed the Keystone pipeline because they believe continued use of fossil fuels will aggravate the problems of climate change. Yet as Samuelson points out, even if we accept every syllable of that claim at face value, rejecting the Keystone pipeline does absolutely nothing to help the problem. The Canadian tar sands will be developed, with or without U.S. assistance. The only difference is, if the oil is shipped across the ocean via tanker, instead of across the United States via pipeline, then there will be more emissions (from transport) and a greater chance of a spill.
Samuelson next observes that the Obama decision “threatens a large source of relatively secure oil that, combined with new discoveries in the United States, could reduce (though not eliminate) our dependence on insecure foreign oil.” Again, he has hit the nail on the head. Part of the typical left-wing objection to America’s “addiction” to oil is that it allegedly requires U.S. military commitments in foreign lands. Well, anybody who believes that should be a fierce proponent of the Keystone pipeline, as it will not only create jobs, but save lives. And yet, the people who make the “oil breeds war in the Middle East” argument also tend to be the same people who oppose the Keystone pipeline.
In discussing the estimates of Keystone’s job creation capability, Samuelson wryly notes, “Whatever the figure, it’s in the thousands and thus important in a country hungering for work. And Keystone XL is precisely the sort of infrastructure project that Obama claims to favor.” Indeed. The federal government seems only too happy to spend taxpayer dollars to “create jobs” in sectors that can’t pass the market test, yet it continues to block profitable investments that would create jobs paying money into federal coffers.
For those Obama supporters who are glad the president returned to his principles, Samuelson gives the following timeline:
By law, Obama’s decision was supposed to reflect “the national interest.” His standard was his political interest. The State Department had spent three years evaluating Keystone and appeared ready to approve the project by year-end 2011. Then the administration, citing opposition to the pipeline’s route in Nebraska, reversed course and postponed a decision to 2013 — after the election.
Now, reacting to a congressional deadline to decide, Obama rejected the proposal. But he also suggested that a new application with a modified Nebraska route — already being negotiated — might be approved, after the election. So the sop tossed to the environmentalists could be temporary. The cynicism is breathtaking.
Yet again, Samuelson has put his finger on an important point. The timing of the Administration’s back-and-forth positions on the Keystone issue do not consistently represent any viewpoint. The various announcements are clearly tied to political realities, not changing assessments of the job estimates or environmental impact. Therefore, even those purist environmentalists who strongly oppose Keystone, shouldn’t be happy with the latest decision, which could very well be reversed if Obama should be re-elected.
In conclusion, Robert Samuelson is right to castigate the rejection of the Keystone pipeline as an irrational policy that sacrifices U.S. jobs for virtually no benefit, even from the point of view of the environmental critics of Keystone. Federal officials keep assuring unemployed Americans that their plight is top priority, but the Keystone decision—as well as other hurdles placed in the development of American energy resources—shows that there are other things more important to policymakers.