The Keystone’s Never-Ending Fight


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The Keystone’s Never-Ending Fight
| published February 25, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline is the political fight that just won’t go away. Republicans, and some Democrats in Congress, have long supported its completion and expansion; President Obama has long opposed any additional pipeline construction.

Both sides say they occupy the moral high ground, with the GOP arguing the case for economic growth, jobs creation, and energy independence, and the White House saying that environmental concerns trump all other factors—i.e. the pipeline would bring more dirty oil into the U.S. marketplace at the exact moment the country should be going green by reducing its carbon footprint. Worse, says Obama, the pipeline’s construction will present ecological challenges and hazards along the way.

The Keystone Pipeline has been back and forth on the national agenda for years now, and the President has already vetoed or killed previous incarnations of the legislation, and has already refused to sign off on any new permitting. Parts of the pipeline are already complete, but proponents have long argued for an enhanced and extended pipeline to move Canadian oil and the newly-tapped energy supplies of the Dakotas to the heartland and the Gulf Coast—a sort of cross continental superhighway for oil distribution.

Energy hawks say that the pipeline has already had an effect by triggering price wars worldwide, reducing U.S. addiction to OPEC oil, and carving out a larger stake for domestic supply. And in the process of construction, Keystone Pipeline supporters say, thousands of new jobs will be created for those workers who build it, with thousands more jobs forming along the way as the multiplier effect spurs dozens of segments forward—equipment sales and repair, food and beverage, housing and hospitality, real estate and land sales.

A newly-empowered Republican-controlled Congress made one of its first acts this session putting the Keystone XL Pipeline back on the national agenda, and that bill reached the President’s desk in February, right after legislators returned from a one week recess. As expected, Obama wasted little time, summarily vetoing the package with a flick of his pen and sending that paperwork back to the House and the Senate. The President didn’t waste time setting up a press conference of a veto ceremony, but instead simply attached a brief letter to Congress which included comments about the seriousness of presidential veto power.

GOP lawmakers say they that are far from defeated on the Pipeline, and plan to continue to wage a war for its completion. But the White House says it is not concerned: even with the GOP enjoying its biggest majority in Congress in generations, Democratic lawmakers will likely fall into line with the President’s position—meaning Republicans will fall a few votes short of overriding the President’s veto.

For Congress to override a President’s veto requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. For now at least, the GOP can’t muster that leverage, at least not without drawing in some Democratic support. Most Washington analysts say Republicans are about 10 votes short of victory in the House, and maybe four votes short in the Senate.

The pipeline enjoys international attention. The Canadian government strongly supports the completion of the Keystone XL Piepline, and has said many times it will work closely with the United States to assist in making the pipeline safe and reliable. Canada’s enthusiastic backing of the project is linked to its own desire to make its vast quantities of oil and gas—cut off from accessible ports and shorelines by thousands of miles of rugged terrain and mountains—more readily available to the U.S. and world markets. The project’s biggest vendor, TransCanada, also supports the completion of the pipeline, and regards this week’s veto as another setback in what it argues is a win-win for the economies of both countries.

Furthermore, the outcome of the political fight over the Keystone XL Pipeline will surely affect the levers and gears of scores of oil-producing nations, from Saudi Arabia (a country with a clear stake in seeing the pipeline not completed), to Russia, Iraq and Iran, and Venezuela. The United States is the second-largest buyer of international oil (after China), and the completion of the pipeline will have an immediate effect on the market prices of oil coming from dozens of countries, a few of whom are prone to political instability.

For the energy hawks in the U.S. and Canada, the completion of the pipeline is a win-win for North American economic strength and energy independence.

Environmentalists don’t see it that way. They argue that the United States should be lowering its carbon footprint by reducing emissions—smarter, greener cars; less dependency on fossil fuels and internal combustion; forceful embrace of alternative energy sources like solar, hydrogen, battery power, you name it. Keystone opponents also worry mightily about the impact construction and maintenance will have on the landscape it will traverse, including disruptions to a variety of species in the path of the pipeline and the potential for hazardous leaks and spills.

The President lines up with this viewpoint, and says that not only are such risks too great, but that the pipeline is already an expensive relic of the past—a monument to an American addiction to oil and a U.S. penchant for consumption at the expense of nature, not to mention an enabler of Global Warming.

The pipeline, if completed, will connect tar sands in Canada and oil fields in the Dakotas with refineries and distribution facilities along the Gulf Coast. Under the ideal scenario, heavy crude oil could be easily and quickly transported from those Canadian fields to massive plants in Texas, where it can be processed and refined into usable oil. Though estimates vary wildly according to what political position is at stake, the pipeline would—in theory—also reduce the amount of crude being transported by tanker trucks over U.S. highways or by rail, thus reducing the overall market price even further.

Because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, its approval and its permitting leapfrogs past states and cities and becomes a Federal issue. The President has sole authority to veto or disallow the pipeline, in part or parcel, unless the GOP can muster the votes needed to override the President’s latest veto.

Numerous political analysts say that with the new GOP-controlled Congress, such high stakes showdowns are likely to continue to occur. In fact, many Washington analysts think that this latest dustup over the future of the Keystone XL Pipeline was a test by both Congressional Republicans and the White House on any such future veto-override showdowns.

Some GOP Congressional strategists have said that the Keystone XL Pipeline—if an override cannot be mustered—may be later reworded and inserted into other bills. The President has said he won’t reconsider approval of the pipeline as long as it can be shown to increase global warming and add to the U.S. carbon footprint. Political analysts say that Republicans in Congress may also go to work wooing Democrats, especially those in the states most likely impacted by the construction of the pipeline.

The upper footprint of the Keystone XL Pipeline would ultimately connect Hardisty, Alberta with Steele City, Nebraska, the proposed route taking it across roughly 1,179 miles using a 36-inch diameter pipe. The southern tier would connect to the Gulf Coast in Texas. According to the TransCanada website, the company remains optimistic that the project will reach approval in the near future.

“TransCanada remains fully committed to Keystone XL despite [this week’s] veto of bipartisan legislation in support of the project,” its statement reads. “The facts show Keystone XL passes the national interest determination test and President Obama’s climate test.”

The website also goes on to stress that America’s dependence on oil from unstable or unfriendly regions of the world—Venezuela, Iraq, Indonesia, Libya, even possibly Saudi Arabia—will continue to spark economic and security problems for the U.S. and its allies.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Oil, Debt, and Venezuela on the Brink; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; January 9, 2015.

Oil Prices & Saudi Arabia’s Endgame; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 8, 2015.