The Keystone Rejection Isn't Exactly An Environmental Win

Well, that's sort of true.
Well, that's sort of true.
Photo courtesy of Bold Nebraska

The Keystone XL Pipeline is officially dead. Last week, President Barack Obama rejected the proposed pipeline, wrapping things up after years of staying firmly undecided on the issue. 

"The State Department has decided that the Keystone XL pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States," Obama said during a 10-minute press conference.  "I agree with that decision."

Of course, environmentalists hailed the decision as a major environmental victory. The Sierra Club thanked Obama "for taking courageous action" in his decision to finally, finally shut down any hope that the pipeline would ever be approved. 

But the thing is, even while environmentalists are celebrating this "big win," it has very little to do with anything environmental and whole lot to do with politics. 

Ever since it was first proposed, the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project by TransCanada to tote sticky black bitumen from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, has been a point of fierce contention. On the one hand, supporters argued that the pipeline would put people back to work, lower gas prices and cut back our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. But opponents of the project argued that the pipeline would be an environmental disaster that would ultimately force people to give up their land for the pipeline and screw up the environment. 

And all the while, Obama was trying to navigate the issue without making his allies on either side angry — labor was in favor of the pipeline because of the jobs while the more liberal side of the Democratic party was staunchly against it because of the environment. By 2011, Obama was running for re-election and he couldn't really afford to alienate either faction, so he did what any good politician would do and stuck the issue into his back pocket. And he kept it there right up until he finally announced his decision last week. 

This simply isn't the victory that some are touting it to be. Obama only took a position now when the Keystone, for all practical purposes, stopped being a real issue. TransCanada did actually build part of the pipeline — the southern leg, which goes from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas coast, has been up and running since 2014. The people on the southern end of the line who were fighting the pipeline because they didn't want to give up their land lost that fight, and there's no way around that fact. 

As for that nasty black Canadian tar sands oil, it's still being transported to the United States. Right now, Canada is shipping record amounts of crude oil to the United States with about 3 million barrels per day coming in through 31 pipelines, according to The Economist. And about half the stuff being brought in is the heavy bitumen or synthetic oil made from it. Any oil that can't be moved in the pipelines is transported by train, an approach that ends up being dirtier, more expensive and dangerous, as Forbes points out. 

This isn't likely to be the end of the line, as far as the Canadian tar sands oil is concerned, anyway. A big part of the reason Obama was able to cancel the Keystone now was because it had become a moot point. Oil prices dropped in June 2014 and they haven't recovered yet, which has sent the oil industry into a tailspin. Since the prices are low, the Canadian tar sands — which are both messy, emitting more carbon than regular oil, and expensive to get out of the ground — lose their luster, but that's only for now, as Politico reported last year (they totally called it.) As Obama noted in his statement on rejecting the Keystone, we aren't likely to see the United States ween itself off of oil entirely any time soon. The prices are down right now, so the Keystone wasn't as appealing from a financial angle, but the prices will come back up and when they do the Canadian tar sands will eventually find their way to market. 

Environmentalists point to Obama's statements about climate change and about keeping fossil fuels in the ground as evidence of his commitment to the issue, but he also said in his statement that Keystone was never a  "silver bullet for the economy" nor "the express lane to climate disaster." He rejected the project now because it didn't make economic sense anymore, because he is on his final laps in office and because he doesn't have to worry about alienating supporters. Because after seven years of waiting, the oil industry has already found ways to work around the lack of a full Keystone XL pipeline, according to StateImpact. Cancelling the pipeline won't hurt Obama, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has already distanced herself enough from both the Keystone and the White House that it won't matter a bit to her.

So Obama got a feather in his cap, and Canadian tar sands oil will eventually make it to market, just as planned. 

Still, environmentalists are hailing this decision as the major environmental battle (and victory) of our time. That may well be the case, but at the heart of this, the issue was never really an environmental one. It was a political issue from start to finish and at the end of the day the environmentalists got a win out of it for one simple reason: Politics. 

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