The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline may look like just another example of the partisan divide on Capitol Hill. If only it were that easy.
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 — Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina — have strongly urged Obama to approve the pipeline. Many labor unions support the project too, because of the jobs it would create.
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 Senate to the GOP.
Another factor has to do with world affairs. At a United Nations-sponsored conference in Paris next year, Obama hopes to nudge other countries to join the United States in adopting more ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. "Any decision we make [on Keystone] will affect our ability to lead in climate change negotiations," one official noted to me this week.
So what will the president do?
The State Department's 11-volume environmental impact statement released last month attempted to balance the factors dispassionately. Yes, the report said, the oil from Alberta's tar sands is 17% dirtier than most of the oil extracted in the U.S., and its transport and refining could add 27 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year.
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 EPA has already proposed seeking a commitment from Canada to do more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Increased pollution from the tar sands has already caused Canada to miss its own climate change targets.
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: TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, has said that its customers intend to sell their products in the United States, but environmentalists, noting that exported fuel is more profitable, are skeptical.
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 John F. Kerry to deliver a final recommendation, and no deadline for Obama to rule on it. It would be easy, as well as prudent, for the White House to wait until the EPA's power plant regulation is unveiled. It would even be easy to wait until after election day on Nov. 4, which might avoid angering one or the other wing of the Democratic faithful in the middle of an election campaign.
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.