President’s Keystone Decision Puts Political Posturing, Paris Ahead of Pragmatism

Published December 11, 2015

President Barack Obama put the final nail in the Keystone XL Pipeline’s coffin by formally rejecting the permit for the transnational pipeline that would have carried crude oil produced in Canada south to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The president’s decision was not based on science but on politics, predicated specifically on political posturing for the COP-21 climate conference in Paris, France.

The Keystone XL Pipeline should never have become a matter of national debate. The pipeline project, which would transport 800,000 barrels per day from Canada to the United States in a relatively small pipe measuring 36 inches in diameter and replace much less safe railroad transport, should have been considered a routine infrastructure project and approved with little fanfare because it would make transporting oil safer and more efficient.

Despite the pipeline’s rejection, Canadian crude will still make its way to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Instead of being transported by pipeline, which is the safest and more efficient way to transport oil, Canada’s heavy crude will take to the rails, which comes with its own concerns about safety.

For example, the number of derailments of railcars carrying crude oil has increased with the growth in oil production in the United States and Canada. These derailments have led to evacuations, injuries, and fatalities, and the president’s apparent lack of understanding of cause and effect—limiting pipeline capacity and increasing crude by rail—is worrisome. It is even more worrisome when one considers nixing Keystone XL has tremendous social and economic costs but no environmental benefits.

State Department reports concluded the pipeline would not contribute to climate change, and despite the president’s claim that killing Keystone XL gives the United States an important platform at the UN climate talks, this symbolic gesture will not sway developing nations away from using coal, oil, and natural gas to lift their citizens out of poverty.

The reality of the situation is this: There are 1.3 billion people on this planet who suffer from energy poverty. They do not have access to adequate electrical services. They are not going to abstain from the benefits of reliable electricity, such as better hospitals and better educational opportunities for their children, because the president of the United States rejected a pipeline they have never even heard of. They are going to choose the most practical, cost-effective forms of energy instead of expensive renewable sources. This fact was demonstrated recently when villagers in India took to the streets demanding their villages be powered by coal.

Simple realities show the United States will need oil and natural gas for the foreseeable future. Despite billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, renewables like wind and solar generate only about 2 percent of the total energy used in the United States. In comparison, 35 percent of our energy comes from oil, and 28 percent comes from natural gas.

Pretending we can replace these forms of energy with inefficient, expensive, and unreliable sources of energy such as wind and solar is at best unrealistic and at worst willfully ignorant. Although domestic hydraulic fracturing has dramatically decreased the need for oil imports, the United States is still the largest importer of oil in the world, and we import more oil from Canada than from any other country.

Rather than making symbolic gestures and dishonestly promoting Keystone XL as a victory for his climate legacy, Obama should focus on pragmatic solutions that make Americans safer and our economy stronger. The Keystone XL Pipeline was a slam dunk in all ways, creating 42,000 jobs while having minimal environmental impact. Sadly, the president missed this layup and fell flat on his face. And now we’re all the losers.