This afternoon, the Obama administration rejected an application from transmission company TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport carbon-rich oil from Canada’s tar sands, through America’s heartland, to refineries in Texas.
That doesn’t mean the pipeline won’t be built. It just won’t be built on the timeline set by Republicans.
Far from embracing the coalition opposing the pipeline, President Barack Obama has indicated that the permit is primarily a State Department affair and that he is most concerned about the potential threats to “the health and safety of the American people,” as he said in his November statement. His most forceful statements about Keystone came in response to Republicans’ legislative efforts to bully his administration into a decision. He has had little to say about the climate-change implications of the pipeline project.
Republicans in Congress forced this decision with a deadline-setting rider to the payroll tax extension, and the administration had about a month left before, by law, it would have had to decide on the permit one way or another; until Republicans forced his hand, Obama had merely delayed the project. With that rider, Republicans have scared up a talking-point line of attack they can ride through the election season: at the behest of lefty environmentalists, President Obama rejected (or—candidate’s choice!—threw out, killed, squashed) just the sort of job-creating project that could wash away the country’s economic woes. They’re trying out their lines already, though they’re leaving out the inconvenient fact that Keystone would create as few as 500 jobs—not the tens of thousands the company was promising.
Now they can also skip over the fact that today’s announcement leaves Keystone XL’s prospects in more or less the same position as in November, when the administration said it wanted to consider alternate routes for the pipeline—paths that would skirt sensitive environmental areas like Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer. The State Department’s decision leaves room for TransCanada to reapply for a permit for an alternative route, and The Washington Post reported that a new route proposal could come within the next two weeks. If the company has to start the permit process from scratch, though, it will mean longer delays that could lead TransCanada to cancel the project altogether.
In the past few days, the D.C. press corps had been hearing rumors that President Obama would announce the fate of Keystone XL during the State of the Union address. But the president has rarely spoken about the issue in public, and although he could still mention the project in his speech, it would have been out of step with his approach so far to elevate the issue’s profile by using his address to Congress to break this particular bit of news.
The fight against Keystone XL grew from the failure of climate-change legislation. Back in September of 2010, after Congress abandoned its efforts to pass a cap-and-trade bill, leaders in the climate movement were rethinking their strategy, and three of them—Bill McKibben, the writer and founder of climate group 350.org, Becky Tarbotton of the Rainforest Action Network, and Greenpeace’s Phil Radford—called for a wave of mass direct action on climate issues. Their goal was to start building a movement, outside of Washington, that would push for climate solutions. The protests against Keystone XL, which began in the summer of 2011, were the first actions to come in from this new push.
For the climate movement, the problem with the pipeline is not just that it passes through sensitive lands but that it carries tar sands oil, which contains more carbon than conventional oil does. Stopping the pipeline may not stop the development of Canada’s oil sands altogether. But it will make profit harder to come by and could shorten the life of the blooming oil industry in the province of Alberta.
The climate campaigners and environmental groups that have been fighting Keystone are celebrating the administration’s announcement as a victory: McKibben called it “a rare bummer of a day for big oil,” and Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement that “the pipeline was rejected for all the right reasons.” And they should be celebrating. Less than a year ago, the Keystone XL permit was going through a relatively routine approval process at the State Department; now the administration has said that the pipeline, as originally conceived, at least, is a bad idea. The anti-Keystone campaigners have goals beyond shutting down this one project, though. They want to build momentum and strength for the larger fight against climate change and the business interests that want to keep dumping carbon into the atmosphere. Building a movement requires victories along the way. This is one.