Representative Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) continue to fall over themselves to see who can be more supportive of legislation forcing President Obama to approve construction of the Keystone Pipeline. The House already approved such legislation on behalf of the Republican seeking to win the Louisiana Senate run-off election; the Senate is expected to do the same. Whether that will actually help the incumbent is highly doubtful.
Setting aside the politics of the Keystone Pipeline proposal, the real question is how did we get to this point?
Based on my assessment of the project, I have concluded that all the things we’ve heard about what the Pipeline does or doesn’t represent have precious little to do with the imminent standoff between Congress and the President.
It isn’t about safety or environmental concerns. There is no rational argument supporting the continued rapid expansion of trucking or rail shipments of crude oil given the serious safety and logistical challenges that still need to be addressed. Pipeline movements already have a strong regulatory system in place; DOT’s rail crude oil shipment regulations won’t be final any time soon.
It isn’t about job creation. Yes, pipeline construction will create a good number of jobs and as an infrastructure advocate I support that as a matter of principle. But the quantity of permanent jobs when considered in context of the overall need for investment in the construction industry will be modest, by any measure.
It isn’t about gasoline prices. Most studies to date shows that domestic prices will hardly budge if or when the Keystone Pipeline becomes operational in 2020 or beyond.
And, no, it isn’t about climate change. The volume of crude that can be shipped through the Pipeline isn’t small, but there are so many other steps we can and should be taking with respect to climate policy that the Keystone is more of a symbol of where we are than a symptom of the problems we face.
The State Department NEPA process has dragged on so long that it has become “Exhibit A” for why project proponents cry out for further reform. There will always be more information that could be accumulated and assessed, whether it addresses climate impacts or the health of Nebraska aquifers. But the glacial pace of the Department’s review invites exactly what has happened – demands to analyze just one more key issue, based on just one more new study.
Lawyers don’t come out of this looking very good, either. The latest statements from the White House claim that a decision can’t or shouldn’t be reached until a Nebraska state court addresses challenges to the project in that jurisdiction. While practical on some levels, that decision-making model invites further state and local challenges. After all, if a state court says that a permit can’t be issued for whatever reason, why should the State Department actually issue a Record of Decision? This is administrative cowardice at its worst.
Every process for every project, no matter how controversial, deserves a decision – even if that decision is “no.” Project developers, project opponents, and the American people are owed that much. Waiting for as long as we have for conclusion of the Keystone Pipeline environmental process leads inexorably to the political gamesmanship we are currently witnessing. Leadership demands the willingness to take a reasoned position in a timely manner and then to defend that position.