How Obama Might OK Pipeline
By Gerald F. Seib
One of President Barack Obama's trickiest political tasks early in his second term has nothing to do with taxes, budget or the debt ceiling. Rather, it will be his decision this spring on whether to give the go-ahead to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Keystone XL—the proposed new spur of a transcontinental pipeline that would carry heavy crude oil from Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast—was splitting Mr. Obama's Democratic coalition even before it became highly politicized when a decision was put off during last year's presidential campaign.
Now, the temperature is rising. Environmentalists, whose admiration for Mr. Obama is about matched by their hatred of the pipeline and the oil it would transport, were busy over the weekend protesting in Washington in an attempt to stop the pipeline.
Still, unions back the idea because of the construction and refining jobs it could create, and nine Democratic senators have joined 44 Republicans in a letter asking for approval. There is ample reason to think the second-term Obama White House, seeing openings to shake America's dependence on Middle East oil, would like to find a way to give the green light.
And if that's so, a combination of forces are lining up in a way that should make it possible for Mr. Obama to get to a "yes" answer, while limiting the political fallout. One argument Mr. Obama can muster for Keystone XL is that the delay in approval that he ordered last year has worked, at least as far as environmental concerns go. It bought time for a change that addresses a principal worry, which was the route of the pipeline.
Initially, the pipeline was to go through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region. Even within deep-red Nebraska, environmental concerns about that route ran high enough to create a roadblock. Now, the route has been changed. A Nebraska state agency said last month the environmental risks of this new route would be "minimal," and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman just gave it a green light.
Environmental groups aren't concerned merely with the route of the pipeline, of course, but with its very reason for existence: its use in facilitating the further burning of oil, and specifically oil extracted from Canada's tar sands, which is dirtier than average to produce.
But on this front, the pipeline's symbolic importance outstrips its practical impact. Stopping Keystone won't stop Canada from producing the oil. The Canadians have too much invested in oil-sands extraction to simply stop.
One likely effect of shutting down the pipeline—aside from deeply straining U.S.-Canadian relations—would be to divert the same oil into exports to Asia, for use by China, a country that is doing far less on other fronts to deal with climate change and dirty auto emissions than is the U.S. More immediately, tar-sands oil still would find its way to the U.S. by other routes—rail, truck and other pipelines—meaning its use won't be extinguished, but the efficiency by which it is brought to market would be diminished.
More important, though, is the broader environmental backdrop of the Keystone decisions. The U.S. is starting to make meaningful progress on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, despite the hard reality that it can't yet shake its addiction to oil.
Thanks to a combination of forces—the increasing use of relatively clean natural gas, improved energy efficiency and, yes, a world-wide recession—the U.S. actually is on track to meet its goal of reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, a goal Mr. Obama laid out in late 2009. The U.S. is outpacing Europe in reducing carbon emissions.
Which opens the door to the real path Mr. Obama can travel in selling Keystone XL approval to his party's base. It is possible to combine Keystone with other environmental moves to show that progress in cutting greenhouse gases will continue even as the pipeline is built.
In his State of the Union address last week, Mr. Obama called on Congress to construct a "bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," citing specifically an approach Republican Sen. John McCain and then-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman advanced several years ago. But if Congress doesn't act, Mr. Obama said, he would explore "executive actions" to reduce pollution and address climate change. That suggests the president would consider moving beyond an existing Environmental Protection Agency proposal to regulate emissions from new power plants and perhaps put new limits on emissions from existing coal-powered plants.
Whatever the president has in mind specifically, it should be easier to sell Keystone XL if that decision is paired with one showing that the progress the U.S. already has made on climate change will continue, even if the U.S. can't soon kick its oil habit. That is precisely the picture Mr. Obama ought to be able to paint as the big decision point nears.
Original article here