An Unhappy Birthday: Keystone XL Application Turns 5

It has now been five years since TransCanada made its first permit application to the U.S. State Department to build the Keystone XL. Under the permit, the firm would construct a cross-border pipeline to carry about 830,000 barrels of Canada-produced oil per day down to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Most of that oil would be mined from the tar sands of Alberta.

No decision has been reached on the current permit application—or rather, no decision has been announced. It’s fate is still guarded by the State Department and President Obama.

In 2009, the U.S. permit for a similar pipeline, Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper, was issued just over two years after the initial application. Then (just four years ago), the State Department spoke in glowing terms of the project, praising it for advancing “strategic interests” and being a “positive economic signal” and further adding that “reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are best addressed through each country’s robust domestic policies.” Here is a taste of the State Department’s press release announcing the pipeline’s approval:

The Department found that the addition of crude oil pipeline capacity between Canada and the United States will advance a number of strategic interests of the United States. These included increasing the diversity of available supplies among the United States’ worldwide crude oil sources in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil producing countries and regions; shortening the transportation pathway for crude oil supplies; and increasing crude oil supplies from a major non-Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries producer. Canada is a stable and reliable ally and trading partner of the United States, with which we have free trade agreements which augment the security of this energy supply.

Approval of the permit sends a positive economic signal, in a difficult economic period, about the future reliability and availability of a portion of United States’ energy imports, and in the immediate term, this shovel-ready project will provide construction jobs for workers in the United States.

The National Interest Determination took many factors into account, including greenhouse gas emissions. The administration believes the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are best addressed through each country’s robust domestic policies and a strong international agreement.

Oh how times have changed. 

Well, actually, no.

Today, the Keystone XL pipeline will affect the U.S. “strategic interests” in the same manner as the Alberta Clipper pipeline. The Keystone XL pipeline will “send a positive economic signal in a difficult economic period” just as the Alberta pipeline. And the State Department took into account “greenhouse gas emissions” of the Keystone XL pipeline just as it did the Alberta Clipper pipeline, and found them to be minimal.

If the primary facts haven’t changed in the four years since Alberta Clipper’s approval, then what has?

Apparently how some people “feel” about Canadian tar oil, greenhouse gases, and their role in climate change.

Now, all manner of protests over the “dirty oil” coming from the Canadian tar sands are being held, with protesters supergluing their hands together in a human chain in TransCanada’s corporate offices, getting arrested in front of the White House, marching on Washington, and all number of other attention-grabbing stunts. A prominent slogan is that the Keystone XL’s approval would mean “game over for climate change.”

This is overblown hype.

But apparently it has President Obama’s attention. He even went out of his way to mention the Keystone XL pipeline in his speech this summer laying out his Climate Action Plan. 

Judging from this week’s 5th anniversary, inaction on the Keystone XL pipeline is part of that Action Plan.

And why not? While the decision is delayed, the protests over the pipeline continue and serve to keep climate change in in the public’s eye—just what the president wants. The delay also buys time for economic recovery, lessening the relative impact of the pipeline. And it allows more time for the Canadian oil to find its way into the United States through other means, again lessening the impact of the pipeline.

All of that leads down the path of the president continuing to delay the decision as long as possible, and then ultimately denying the permit. It would be just one more thing for his critics to gripe about, but it would give a spiritual uplift to all those people who feel good just to be “doing something” about climate change.

That that “something” quite possibly has negative actual ramifications is beside the point.

Science and economics has already spoken on the issue; spirituality is all that is left.

And feeling good about ourselves is what matters most, right?