If TransCanada Corp.’s proposal to build a 1,700-mile oil pipeline from western Canada to Gulf Coast refineries didn’t date back to 2008, President Obama’s contention that he hadn’t had enough time to properly evaluate it might seem more credible, and his decision to reject it less politically motivated.
And while he made no bones about politics driving the decision — the Republicans mischievously forcing his hand by attaching a rider to the payroll tax extender last month, demanding an answer by Feb. 21 — his action was justifiable.
Clearly, the Keystone XL pipeline is an economic winner. It would create jobs by the thousands during construction, at a time the economy is still struggling. There would be far fewer permanent jobs, of course, but there would also be nearly 900,000 barrels of oil per day.
Just as clearly, the proposal is an environmental nightmare. It requires an extraction process akin to hydrofracking to separate the oil from the tar sands in which it lies, creating three barrels of polluted water for every barrel of oil. Of equal concern was the proposed pipeline’s route — around lakes and sand dunes in an ecologically sensitive area of Nebraska and above an aquifer that supplies water to parts of Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico. Pipeline accidents in this country are not all that rare, so a more circuitous, less-dangerous route for Keystone XL would be advisable.
Obama wanted to delay this decision until after the election — rather than risk alienating environmentalists or unions that would benefit from construction jobs. For equally political reasons, the Republicans wanted a decision out of him before then, and tried to get it by attaching an unrelated rider to what they knew was a must-pass bill. What they got is a waffle that keeps the door to the pipeline open but insists that the builder choose a more environmentally benign route. TransCanada indicated that it will cooperate, but wants the president to provide a more timely assessment, so construction can get started without much additional delay. That seems like a reasonable enough request, and Obama can probably deflect much Republican criticism if he agrees to grant it. Jobs and oil are in short enough supply that a project adding both should be accommodated if at all possible.