(March 14, 2013) Not needed for U.S. energy security or employment.
This article was first published by the National Post.
Many are surprised that President Barack Obama has not yet approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, creating thousands of jobs while reducing America’s dependence on Middle East oil. His reluctance shouldn’t be surprising — no single act that he could take would more undermine his vision for America or his desired legacy as a transformational leader.
To a Republican, Keystone would be a solid accomplishment in what otherwise seems a failed presidency. But to a Democrat — and especially to America’s top Democrat — the Obama presidency is on track to achieve momentous accomplishments. Here are the goals Obama announced for his presidency on the night of June 3, 2008, upon winning enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination for president: “If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless. This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal. This was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.”
Obama made good on his health-care pledge. The unemployment rate has finally begun to drop. He is making good on ending a war. The one major pledge that remains to be met is climate change, in some ways the most profound because it affects the planet and is the most consequential to his legacy — it would secure his reputation as a transformative figure outside the country as well as within.
So what’s the case for turning his back on his climate change concerns and approving Keystone? Not energy security. The U.S. has been going gang-busters in expanding production, despite Obama’s success in restricting drilling off-shore and on government lands. The latest projections have the U.S. a net energy exporter in five years and oil self-sufficient by 2035. If Obama wanted to speed the energy security timetable he could do it by spurring production at home, rather than relying on Canada’s tar sands. Besides, the main reason Canada wants and needs Keystone is to fetch higher prices for its oil, which is now bottled in and sold at a discount — the Keystone pipeline would allow Canadian oil to flow through to the Gulf Coast, from where it could be exported to Asia at higher prices than now paid by Americans. Was Obama elected to serve the interests of the Canadian oil industry, when doing so would also raise prices for U.S. consumers?
If not energy, then should Keystone be approved to create jobs? Yes, if you don’t see pipelines as technologies of yesterday that will only prolong the fossil fuel era. No, if you want to usher in a new era based on modern renewable energy technologies, and don’t want to see fossil fuel jobs created at the expense of manufacturing jobs in high-tech wind turbines and solar arrays. Besides, as Obama noted just this week, the pipeline jobs are exaggerated — his experts tell him they might number but 5,000. Even if Keystone would produce jobs at the claimed figure of 20,000, so what? According to the Labor Department, the U.S. created 236,000 additional jobs last month alone. Why stain a presidency for job numbers that wouldn’t move the unemployment rate by so much as one-tenth of 1%?
Many claim that Keystone wouldn’t adversely affect the environment since Canada isn’t going to allow its tar sands oil to sit in the ground — if the U.S. doesn’t approve Keystone, they say, Canada will build a pipeline to British Columbia and then ship its oil to China, or else Canada will reverse an existing pipeline in Central Canada and then send its tar sands oil east.
Maybe so, but maybe not. The pipelines face a gamut of opposition from environmentalists, native communities, provincial interests and regulators, making their completion anything but a done deal. Even if the regulatory hurdles could be overcome and the pipeline economics be made to work, years of delay could be in the offing. In that interim, the economics of energy production itself could change, as it so often does, rendering new tar sands projects uneconomic to develop. Or the governments of the world could finally act on their climate change rhetoric and impose carbon taxes or other measures whose effect would be the demise of tar sands. Even if the Canadian pipeline projects are eventually built and additional tar sands are eventually developed, the delays necessitated by disallowing Keystone would spare the planet years of emissions from what many see as the world’s dirtiest plants — no small accomplishment.
President Obama does have a political reason to approve Keystone — most unions want the pipeline jobs, and he owes them big time. But Obama also owes the environmental community and Hollywood, major backers both. To them, much more than to the unions, Keystone is a matter of principle, a litmus test of fitness. Obama will be able to make good with the unions in any number of ways; Keystone may be his only meaningful way to secure his climate change bona fides to environmentalists, and to posterity.
In their second terms, presidents consider their legacy. Approving a pipeline from Canada that will do little for employment while raising oil prices for Americans and threatening the planet, as Obama sees it, can only sully his reputation with those that most count to him — his ardent Democratic supporters. The logic for refusing Keystone for a man of his temperament is near irresistible.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Toronto-based Energy Probe.
This article was first published by the National Post.