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Pipeline Politics
Where Did the Keystone Controversy Go?

With the midterms only weeks away, just about every issue that rates a headline above the fold has become fodder for political campaigns (e.g., Ebola). How strange, then, that the Keystone XL pipeline, which was such a major issue earlier this year, is no longer being brought up by either side. This project, which would connect Canada’s oil sands with Gulf Coast refineries, was the green movement’s signature issue six months ago. Many environmental groups drew a line in the sand, declaring the issue a referendum on President Obama’s environmental legacy. But greens lately seem to have abandoned the idea that this is a make-or-break issue for candidates. Politico reports:

Environmental groups are happily endorsing pro-Keystone candidates, as long as they support President Barack Obama’s broader agenda of slashing greenhouse gases. Climate activist billionaire Tom Steyer, who’s spending up to $100 million to influence seven Senate and gubernatorial races, has yet to air a Keystone-focused ad in any of them. And oil companies have found plenty of other ways to get Canadian crude into the U.S., even as Keystone enters its sixth year of awaiting a permit from the State Department. […]

Last year, Steyer spent about $1 million on ads aimed at stoking opposition to the pipeline. This time, he’s actively trying to reelect Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who refuses to say whether Obama should approve or reject the project.

So what changed? In early June the EPA unveiled new regulations for power plant emissions, amounting to America’s biggest green commitment to-date. Last month’s climate march was more about agitating (fecklessly) for a Global Climate Treaty and protesting fracking than it was about stopping Keystone. College students have taken to advocating for institutional divestment from fossil fuel funds—a movement which has largely replaced anti-Keystone rallies as the green cause du jour.

On the other side, Canada is moving forward with alternatives to Keystone, looking at a project that would connect land-locked Albertan crude with Canada’s Atlantic coast to the east. On both sides, the stalemate has pushed groups to look for other options.

For the Obama administration, this development is an early Christmas present. The State Department has again and again reported that the proposed pipeline would have a neglible impact on climate change (because the oil is coming out of the ground whether Keystone is built or not), and Canada is America’s largest trading partner and one of its most important allies. But the greens are an important part of the Democratic base moving into the midterms, so what should have been an easy decision for the pipeline became a real dilemma. The White House did, however, get help from a Nebraska judge, who effectively allowed the President to kick the Keystone can downfield, past the midterms.

For the green movement, any strategic refocus away from Keystone is to the good. Opposing the project was a poor move from the start, being a purely symbolic gesture without any significant climate benefits.

Here’s to hoping for a post-election Keystone approval, because after this November, Obama will well and truly be out of excuses.

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  • Robert Evans

    I’m actually thinking that he’s going to refuse to make a decision and run out the clock on the issue; it’s his pattern, after all, to vote “present” rather than commit himself.

  • Samuel Adams

    Short answer. The Obama Adminstration has ramped up the production of political fiascoes beyond the capacity of the media to report them.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Other topics arose, unbidden…

  • FriendlyGoat

    Not long ago, the Republicans were going to focus the midterms on opposition to Obamacare too. Issues ebb and flow—–mostly driven by the most current polls, I think.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    The Keystone delay, or indeed cancellation if it comes to that, has and had no environmental and negligible economic impacts. But it still had important symbolic effects. Keystone approval was literally a no-brainer. Every state department report for years has recommended approval. Indeed, with some 300,000 miles of existing pipelines in the US how could anyone imagine that this particular 1,300 miles would be “game over” for the human race, as Bill McKIbben repeatedly said. I’m sure that when Trans-Canada got into this, spending millions on environmental studies, permitting and design, they thought it was low risk. But what Keystone, and many other similar regulatory excesses, teach is that nothing is low risk when everything is political. Just as companies know they have to be careful about investing in a place like Russia, where the rule of law is weak, they are learning they have to be careful about investing in the US too.

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