It is official–after seven years of bureaucratic foot dragging, President Obama finally stepped forward and killed the Keystone XL pipeline project. The pipeline had become a cause célèbre of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party–the Republicans opposed government over-regulation and approved of the number of jobs the construction of the pipeline would create and the Democrats opposed the pipeline as an environmental hazard and a facilitator of global warming and harmful hydrocarbon emissions.
Just in case you are one of the five people in the country who do not know what the Keystone XL pipeline is, here is a short brief. The pipeline was originally proposed by TransCanada Corporation (a Canadian energy company) in 2005. ConocoPhillips (a US energy company) briefly held a 50% interest in the project. The proposal, in its essential form, outlined a plan to build a pipeline to from Alberta, Canada to Houston, Texas. Alberta has some of the biggest reserves of tar sands in the world, albeit as remote from any refining capacity or ocean going transportation hub as one can imagine.
Alberta tar sands crude is a heavy crude that is hard to refine, and releases more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere than most crude pumped from the ground in the US. It is a lot like Venezuelan heavy crude, different only in that Alberta crude is a synthetic oil produced from tar sands, while Venezuelan crude is pumped from wells.
The Keystone pipeline is actually a system of pipelines. The XL segment of which was to pass through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Early opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline came from landowners in the three states, particularly Nebraska, who either objected to heavy-handed eminent domain tactics by TransCanada or objected over environmental grounds, fearing a pipeline spill. Much later, national environmental interest became involved, using opposition to the pipeline as a focus for their objections over hydrocarbon fuels.
Barak Obama’s election as president in 2008, in conjunction with Democratic control of Congress, galvanized the opposition and made it possible to throw up a set of extra-legal obstructions to pipeline in the State Department and the EPA. Control of Congress was split two years later between the two parties, allowing the Republicans to stymie congressional opposition. But the president held all the cards as the head of the executive branch, and he pulled the levers of power as necessary in order to prevent any progress.
The irony behind the political opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is that it is moronic even by political standards. The Keystone pipeline has actually already been built and Alberta crude already flows to the Cushing terminal in Oklahoma and then to the Gulf of Mexico. The first four phases are all but completed–only the fifth phase, the XL pipeline that takes a shortcut through Montana and South Dakota rather than taking the long way east through Canada and then south through North Dakota, has not been finished.
Even without the fully operational Keystone pipeline system, Alberta tar sands crude is still moving through the US, but on trains. In fact so much crude from Alberta and the fracked oil fields in the US move through the freight rail system that US agriculture and other commodity producers have had trouble getting cars for their product to market.
Of course Alberta crude does not have to be pumped into the US to move it to international markets. It could instead be pumped by pipeline to British Columbia and the Pacific, where it would be bought by say, China. China has shown little fear of dirty hydrocarbon fuels, and in fact is one of the biggest users of coal, much of which is actually mined in the US.
In effect Obama’s final veto of the pipeline is an act of preaching to the choir, one that has virtually no impact on global warming and air pollution. It makes the president, to be frank, look like a moron–a moron leading a parade of sanctimonious morons in an act of eventual mutual political immolation, as history will most likely prove it to be. It is disappointing and un-statesmanlike. I can only hope the next president can do better.