“Here’s what I know about Keystone XL,” tweeted famed Canadian political commentator Paul Wells the other day. “Every time the President of the United States mentions it in public, he laughs. And it’s his decision.”
Barack Obama certainly had himself a good guffaw at the thing’s expense last week, at least according to the fastidious stenographers at The New York Times. Asked to offer his opinion on TransCanada Corp’s proposed Alberta-to-Texas petroleum pipeline — a massive cross-border infrastructure project backed almost unanimously by the entire Canadian politico-economic establishment — the President is noted to have given some skeptical “[chuckles]” at a number of the project’s purported promises.
Obama’s snark generated frantic headlines across Canada, as is always the case when the man so much as sneezes the words “Keystone.” Since the President has refused to officially authorize the thing for about for about four years now (approving international, multi-state projects of this sort being one of his constitutional prerogatives), every single ambiguous utterance he offers on the subject is systematically parsed, deconstructed, and dissected in this country by reporter and politician alike, as they desperately search for the thinest sliver of hidden finality from an administration that’s been too coy to offer any direct closure.
Back in March, that search seemed to be going well, and Canadians seemed relatively certain that the Obama tea leaves were signaling a “yes.” The State Department released a 2,000-page report on Keystone that, while officially neutral on the project, had nevertheless found significant flaws in several of the arguments against it.
The report found no evidence, for starters, that refusing to build the pipeline would have much impact on the environment one way or another. The pollution generated by the Albertan oil sands, from which the Keystone crude would originate, is likely to continue pipe or no pipe, concluded the authors, and as such, the President’s approval or veto would be a mostly irrelevant gesture if the goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Considering the bulk of opposition to the project — on both sides of the 49th — comes from climate change activists, that concession seemed like a pretty big victory for the pro-Keystone forces.
Given the Prez’s recent backtracking, however, the amount of joy that was harvested from the State Department’s exceedingly backhanded compliment is starting to look a tad pollyannaish in retrospect.
For a country so deeply engrained with US culture, it’s striking how badly Canadian officialdom has misread the American left’s mood on this issue. A recent article in the Globe and Mail was unsettling in the amount of naiveté on display from the very politicians most responsible for pushing the pipeline.
“If you had asked me prior to the U.S. election, I would have said, ‘Of course it’s going to be built … regardless of who wins,'” said the Mayor of Calgary. But now? “The feeling in Canada over the past four or five weeks has become less optimistic about this thing being built.”
The federal finance minister expressed similar surprise. “I had reason for optimism before the election that the President would approve it, were he re-elected,” he said. But then the minister listened to Obama’s long paean to green causes in his second inaugural address and found it, well, “not encouraging.”
As I’ve argued before, I think a lot of this helplessness stems from Canada’s pervasive “liberal bias.” Because Canadians are taught to believe the Democratic Party is really just America’s principled centre-right, and therefore trust President Obama with near-bipartisan certainty, the idea that he was actually a run-of-the-mill lefty on environmental issues — dogmatic, economically illiterate, and beholden to the green lobby – was never seriously contemplated. Though that’s where the evidence now seems to point.
Obama’s derisive claim in the Times interview that Keystone “might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline” was promptly slapped with a “false” rating on PoliFact.com. There was “no supporting evidence” for that figure, said the site; the real number, based the Obama State Department’s own estimations, was “nearly twice as many.” The TransCanada corporation meanwhile, biased source though it may be, is promising a job creation figure closer to 13,000, and claims they’ve already employed 4,000 Americans on the project so far.
Facts were similarly short in the President’s blunt assertion that Keystone “might actually cause some gas prices in the Midwest to go up” since most of Keystone’s Canadian oil will eventually be exported abroad by Texas refineries, rather than remain in the States. But “much,” in this case, is relative The Wall Street Journal noted in March that “Texas Gulf Coast refiners that would be the main recipients of Keystone-shipped crude already exported more than 60% of the gasoline they produced” last year, with that percentage based on estimates of likely US consumption. Assuming the Keystone oil is sold to foreign and domestic markets at a roughly similar ratio, that still means 40% of the pipeline’s estimated inflow of 830,000 barrels a day will remain in the US market — hardly enough to destabilize domestic prices by suppressing supply.
In any case, America’s currently high gas prices aren’t so much an issue of supply and demand as supply and distribution. Crude oil production within the US has been dramatically climbing in recent years thanks to new technologies like fracking, though this has also had the result of causing something of a “bottleneck” effect as pipelines and refineries struggle to move and process the petroleum as fast as it can be dug up. Whether or not the construction of Keystone would do anything to alleviate this problem is an open and fair question, but it’s a concern quite distinct from the President’s worry, which was basically just a variation on the old protectionist trope of linking expanded trade abroad with a worsening standard of life at home.
Then there was his stuff about greenhouse gasses, his insistence that “I’m going to evaluate this based on whether or not this is going to significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere” even though that question had already been settled by the aforementioned State Department report. Plus his related claim that Canada “could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release,” even though the government of Alberta is already doing more than any state or province on the continent as far as imposing tough (and mandatory) CO2 emissions reductions on its petroleum sector.
Second term presidents worry a lot about their legacy and they worry a lot about their influence. At a time when Obama is already badly emasculated by an intransigent House of Representatives, and, if Nate Silver is to be believed, perhaps soon the Senate as well, the pressure is mounting to scrape up some sort of policy victory, somewhere, before the noise of 2016 overshadows him completely.
Vetoing Keystone checks a number of attractive boxes. It can be done unilaterally, it appeases the increasingly disillusioned Democrat base, and it provides the President with something big and flashy he can say he “did” to help the environment, in case anyone ever asks. It won’t do much for jobs, energy independence, economic growth or Canadian-US relations, but hey, at least it gives Obama a good laugh.