The debate over the
President Obama's dilemma over whether to approve the 1,600-mile pipeline, which would move oil from Canada to Texas, has more to do with disagreements within the Democratic Party, and with foreign relations.
Environmentalists, including some of the Democrats' biggest donors, have seized on Keystone as a test of Obama's commitment to halting global warming. They say the bitumen from Alberta's tar sands is the dirtiest oil on Earth and that refusing to build the pipeline would be a historic step away from petroleum.
But four Democratic senators whose seats are in danger this year —
And there's the painful crux of Obama's political conundrum. If he says yes to the pipeline, he'll infuriate environmentalists, alienate important donors and disenchant many of the young voters his party needs to turn out this fall. But if he says no, vulnerable Democratic candidates in energy-friendly states could suffer on election day. A net loss of six seats would deliver control of the
Another factor has to do with world affairs. At a
So what will the president do?
But the report also concluded that a U.S. decision to block the pipeline wouldn't significantly reduce that problem, because Canada intends to move the oil whether Keystone is built or not. Indeed, if Canada ships most of the oil by rail, the environmental consequences could be even worse, and the United States would lose out on the pipeline's economic rewards.
That's why some administration officials I've talked with — and even, privately, some environmentalists — are betting that Obama will eventually approve the Keystone project.
How that sits with voters, especially environmentalists, may depend on what conditions the president imposes on the project and what else he does to address climate change.
Obama can and should ask for conditions in return for his approval of the pipeline. The
Another idea offered by environmentalists is that Obama could approve the pipeline on the condition that oil companies agree to sell the refined products that result in the United States instead of exporting them. That could have the effect of reducing the amount of oil shipped via Keystone — and also of calling the oil industry's bluff:
Most important, Obama can take other actions to offset the additional Keystone emissions. Indeed, he already intends to. By June 1, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose a federal regulation to cut carbon emissions from the nation's 1,500 existing power plants, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gases. If the rules are tough enough, they could eventually result in the shuttering of all the 600 remaining coal-fired power plants in the country. Doing so would reduce emissions by an amount many times greater than what the Keystone pipeline would add.
But none of this is likely to happen in a hurry. The State Department's Jan. 31 report is open to comments from other federal agencies until the end of April. But there's no deadline for Secretary of State
If Obama approves Keystone under those circumstances, environmentalists will still be angry, but not nearly as angry as if the president had said yes earlier. They'll find solace in the steps Obama will have taken by then to curb global warming.
This is one case where procrastination might be a virtue.