Like most debates in Congress, the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is driven by posturing and partisanship rather than common sense. On Tuesday, this phenomenon was on full view as the Senate took a vote that fell short of overriding environmental concerns and giving the pipeline the go-ahead.
The goofiness began with the reason the vote was taken at all. Louisiana’s Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu pleaded with her party's Senate leaders to bring up the measure on the theory that a public display of her strong support for the pipeline would help her prevail in the December runoff election in which Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy is favored to oust Landrieu from her Senate seat.
What’s goofy about that? Well, for one thing, though Landrieu is a sponsor of the Senate pipeline bill, Cassidy is sponsor of the House version, and it is hard to see how passage of the legislation would give Landrieu any advantage over Cassidy.
For another thing, if this was meant to be a demonstration of Landrieu’s clout as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, it did not work very well. The bill missed getting through by one vote, and, as the world knows, even if Landrieu defeats Cassidy, her influence will only shrink when Republicans take over the Senate in January.
And, for a third thing, what lame-brained political consultant is naive enough to think that Louisiana voters care that much about a pipeline that would not even run through their state? Elections do not turn on issues of limited interest like this, especially if competing candidates have exactly the same position.
Still, California Sen. Barbara Boxer – one of the leading Democratic opponents of the pipeline -- told the media she thought taking the vote was worth doing since it produced a good debate on the issue. Maybe, but one of the country’s most prominent liberal voices, Rachel Maddow, spent several minutes on her MSNBC show mocking the Democrats’ quixotic attempt to help Landrieu when they have so few days left to do anything useful with their disappearing Senate majority.
“What on Earth were they thinking?” an incredulous Maddow asked. “How is this even conceivably, by any stretch of the imagination, a constructive use of time by the Democrats?”
Republicans, even though they lost the vote, were perfectly happy that Democrats gave them the chance to grandstand on the issue and highlight how things will be different when they are in charge. The incoming Senate majority leader, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, said the pipeline bill would be revived and passed early next year – possibly with a veto-proof majority.
Significantly, McConnell referred to the measure as “the Keystone jobs bill.” Republicans think they are on to something by shifting the terms of debate toward the job-creation aspect of Keystone. If President Obama decides to exercise his veto, they will slam him for killing jobs – and, for good measure, they will also hammer him for undercutting American energy independence.
That is more misleading silliness. According to TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, the project is expected to create fewer than 2,000 temporary construction jobs for two years and just a handful of maintenance jobs after that. The exceptionally dirty oil that will be extracted from Alberta’s tar sands and pumped through the pipeline will bring a lot of money to Canada and to multinational energy companies, but the oil itself will go to foreign countries, not to Americans.
The benefits of this project for the United States are dubious, but the risks are real, from the potential for disastrous oil spills and pollution of groundwater to a major increase in carbon spewed into the atmosphere. The smart thing to do would be to proceed with extreme caution, but that is not what congressional politics dictate once the posturing and partisanship shifts into high gear.