Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Playing Games with US Energy Security

Well, that didn't take long. The administration issued its decision denying the Keystone XL Pipeline application today, rather than using the remaining 34 days in the Congressionally mandated timeline to attempt to find a better solution. This is a prime example of what frustrates so many Americans of all political affiliations about how the nation is being governed. If you read the carefully drafted press release from the State Department, which had been given responsibility for determining whether the pipeline was in the national interest, it explicitly states that today's decision was neither final nor on the merits of the project. Implicit in this document is that today's move is exactly that, the latest move in the game that the President and Congress have been playing with a project large enough to affect the energy security of this country for decades to come. It is unseemly, and it didn't have to be played this way, despite the White House's protests that the 60-day timeline was unrealistic--after three years of study.

Here's a different statement the President could have issued, which might not have satisfied either side of the argument but would have left his administration looking like one with a bias for action and answers, instead of delays and obstacles:

"Today I have instructed the State Department to issue a pro forma finding against the application for the Keystone XL Pipeline project, with the clear understanding that this decision is a temporary expedient to provide the time necessary to resolve the remaining outstanding issues, as quickly as humanly possible. I hereby commit that my administration will do everything in its power to work with the government of Canadian Prime Minister Harper and with Governor Heineman of Nebraska to reach a mutually satisfactory solution that will allow this critical project strengthening the energy bonds between our two nations to proceed, while finding meaningful ways to address the concerns that many Americans have about the project's potential local and global environmental impacts. With renewed tensions in the Persian Gulf and with millions of Americans still out of work, we can do nothing less, even as we remain committed to protecting the environment that benefits us all. I have directed Secretary Clinton to work closely with Energy Secretary Chu and EPA Administrator Jackson and with their counterparts in Canada to develop a solution that addresses these needs, and to report back to me within 90 days with its outline ."

I don't diminish the political challenges of issuing such a statement when key parts of the President's support base have been so vocal in opposing this project. All you have to do is look at the latest set of talking points against the project from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). As disappointingly illogical a mishmash as they may be, based on misinterpreted data and a bizarre defense of cheap oil for the Midwest, they still reflect heartfelt, even visceral, reactions to the Keystone project--or more accurately to the oil sands development that it was expected to enable. Fair enough. I respect their right to an opportunity to provide input and guidance toward an eventual compromise, but not to a veto over US energy policy.

Nor should the opponents of the Keystone XL project fool themselves. Today's decision was guided by expediency, just as the future, possibly quite different decision for which the door was left open would be, perhaps at a point in time when the political calculus has shifted in favor of the project due to some external event. A decision based on principle would have looked quite different. "The Department’s denial of the permit application does not preclude any subsequent permit application or applications for similar projects." Whose move is it now?

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