The Keystone Pipeline Saga Takes an Odd Turn
Policy + Politics

The Keystone Pipeline Saga Takes an Odd Turn


Regardless of how one feels about the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would pump hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands from the northern border of the U.S. to the Gulf Coast, it’s difficult to argue that the approval process for the massive pipeline project has been anything other than a fiasco.

The Obama administration has had Keystone in its metaphorical inbox since taking over the White House nearly seven years ago and has done practically everything possible to delay a decision on a project that has become a political lightning rod. Even well into Obama’s second term, with no future election on the horizon, the administration has been in no hurry to bring closure to the Keystone question, though public comments on the project have slowly changed from non-committal to negative.

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In the throes of the economic recovery from the Great Recession, Republicans (with little actual evidence) latched on to the pipeline and characterized it as a massive jobs project that the administration was stifling, turning an already fraught political battle over the pipeline’s environmental impact into a broader argument over voters’ economic well-being.

In any case, the Obama administration continued to delay its decision on whether or not to grant the necessary approvals to allow construction.

Finally, on Tuesday, the company behind the project, TransCanada, asked the White House to suspend its application. The motivation behind the request was obvious. With little more than a year left before President Obama leaves the White House and the administration’s comments sounding increasingly like public preparation for rejection of the application, the company would prefer to take its chances with a new administration in 2017.

The Obama administration may not be willing to play along, though. The White said on Tuesday that the president wants to rule on the pipeline before he leaves office.

It’s hard to blame TransCanada for wanting to extricate itself from the approval morass created by the administration. While the decision about Keystone may be a complicated one, it’s not one that needed to eat up most of a decade. And whether you think Keystone is an environmental disaster waiting to happen or a step toward U.S. energy independence, requiring a company to put a major project on hold for years out of transparently political calculation is unconscionable.

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However, the Obama administration, despite years of slow-walking the Keystone decision, is shocked – shocked! – at TransCanada’s desire to wait for the next presidential administration to make the final call.

Referring to the request to suspend the application as “unusual,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday said that the fact that a presidential election is one year away is no reason for the administration not to finally rule on Keystone.

“I don't think that that's a good excuse for, basically, spending the next year doing nothing,” he said in a press conference. 

Of course, were the administration to spend a year “doing nothing” on Keystone, it is unclear that there would be much observable difference between that and what it has spent the past seven years doing.

Keystone may be an environmental disaster, or it may be a low-risk boon to the U.S. energy industry. In any case, at this point it doesn’t seem unreasonable for TransCanada to ask that the final determination be made by an administration that hasn’t treated it as a political football for seven years.