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Pipeline Politics
The Political Calculus Behind the Keystone Delays

Last Friday, the State Department announced that it would be delaying its decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, pending approval by a Nebraskan commission on the portion of the pipeline that traverses the state.

Back in February, when a Nebraskan district judge threw out her governor’s decision to skip the commission’s approval process, we remarked that the President probably owed her a thank-you note. The Nebraska’s Public Service Commission (which, we should note, is itself inexperienced in oil pipeline matters, and possibly corrupt) could take up to seven months to decide on the issue, after which the State Department will resume soliciting feedback from federal agencies about the Keystone project. Conveniently, that could mean the President won’t have to make his decision until after this fall’s midterm elections.

The delay is excellent news for the President, and for Democrats more generally, who are trying to placate their green base as they work to shore up their positions in Congress. The environmental movement has (bizarrely and somewhat stupidly) drawn a line in the (tar) sand over the Keystone pipeline. Even though a recent State Department report found that approving the pipeline would not significantly affect climate change—due to the simple fact that the Canadian oil it would be transporting is coming out of the ground one way or another—green-lighting Keystone would enrage many green voters. Kicking the Keystone can past the midterms saves the Democrats a lot of trouble.

One of the biggest Democratic boosters, billionaire Tom Steyer, has not been shy in his criticism of Democratic politicians who have supported the Keystone project. He went after Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, whose state has a vested interest in seeing this pipeline built, in an online attack ad. Steyer has been outspoken in his willingness to play political “hardball,” and said that “if it makes them [Democratic leaders] nervous, tough. That’s just tough.”

But in the wake of this recent Keystone deferment, we’re seeing signs that the Democrat’s base has been mollified. The Washington Post reports:

The Obama administration announced last week that it would delay its decision on Keystone, a move that likely pushes the issue back beyond the midterm elections. Steyer, who plans to spend big money in key races in 2014, said the move does not change his November outlook.

Steyer reportedly plans to spend as much as $100 million on 2014 races, split between personal money and contributions from donors. He raised the possibility of spending even more than that Tuesday. ”If you said to me, how much would I be willing to spend, to make this what I believe it is, the most important issue in the minds of Americans, then I would think 100 million bucks would be very low, honestly,” he said.

If you had any doubts that these recent Keystone XL delays were politically calculated, those should be gone by now. One district court judge in Nebraska may have just influenced the outcome of this year’s national midterm elections.

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