From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published January 20, 2012 10:53 AM

Obama's Calculus for Terminating the Keystone Pipeline

Election years are always a terrible time to make big decisions. Everything leaders do is influenced by calculations regarding their re-election. Whether something is right or wrong often matters less than what will bring about more votes. The decision by the Obama Administration to put to rest the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project is no exception. However, this in itself does not mean the decision is without its merits.


It was an issue that was expected to be punted until after the election. Last November, the long-awaited decision was delayed on the grounds that more investigation needed to be done by the State Department and various other federal agencies. The unexpected recent announcement came to the delight of environmental advocates and the dismay of the oil industry, each having their own significant political clout. The media is now buzzing with pundits on both side cheering or criticizing this new development.

What Obama did was effectively deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit application. In a memorandum issued last Wednesday, the President claimed that there was not enough time for the State Department to conduct adequate studies within the timeframe passed by the Republican Congress. That timeframe would have forced the President to approve or deny the permit within 60 days.

Issues that the State Department would look at are energy security, economic impact, and foreign policy. This is because the Keystone XL pipeline is an international project, connecting Canada and the US. The State Department had indicated that these issues could not be fully examined until the first quarter of 2013.

Obama's decision can be considered to stand alone on environmental merit. The source of oil for the pipeline is the tar sands in Canada. The extraction and refining of this type of crude is energy intensive, and can do major environmental damage to the landscape. Plus with such a massive pipeline spanning nearly the entire continent, the odds of accidental releases grow.

Perhaps the biggest environmental reason for the pipeline denial is that it would make it more difficult for America to break its addiction with oil. It would be absolutely no help in the effort to slow down global climate change.

Speaking of Obama's recent decision, Bill McKibben, leading advocate against the pipeline with said, "Blocking one pipeline was never going to stop global warming—but it is a real start, one of the first times in the two-decade fight over climate change when the fossil fuel lobby has actually lost."

Politically, the President was backed into a corner and forced to say no to the pipeline. The alternative would have been far to damaging to his reelection. If he had approved the project, Obama would likely have pleased conservative voters and those concerned with gas prices above all else. But these people would likely not vote for him anyway. In return, he would have alienated his own constituents, environmentalists and other Democratic donors.

The decision may still cost him politically by turning away Democratic and Independent voters who are concerned with job growth over the environment. It may also cost the United States in its relations with the conservative Canadian government. At the end of the day, it was never a good issue for Obama because there was no way to please everybody. His move was explained by claiming the State Department did not have enough time, but likely came after much deliberating and political calculus. However, this in itself does not mean the decision is without its merits.

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