Politics take over pipeline

Nov 18, 2011

President Obama, under strong political pressure, announced that he would delay indefinitely the final decision on the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American markets, despite the State Department’s report and conclusion that the project would create no negative environmental impacts.

The decision on whether or not to permit TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline is delayed until a new Environmental Impact Statement is done on alternative routes, which will not be finished until at least early 2013.

Nebraskans were quick to praise the president and challenge the Nebraska Unicameral to continue the work of passing oil pipeline regulations in the current special session.

Randy Thompson is a landowner in the current path of the pipeline who has become something of a Nebraska folk hero. Of the president’s announcement, Thompson said, “It’s good to see that the president is listening to the concerns of Nebraskans. Now it’s critical that we have a sound environmental study. Keystone XL needs to be rerouted. Our future generations will thank the president and hopefully will thank our state senators if they do the job they were elected to do for citizens, not big corporations.”

The pipeline was proposed in 2008 as a conduit linking a fastgrowing, environmentally controversial and carbon-intensive oil deposit in Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The delay gives the State Department more time to explore alternative routes in Nebraska. Residents and legislators in that state have voiced objections to the pipeline’s current planned route, which traverses through the Ogalalla Aquifer and Sand Hills.

Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska reacted, “President Obama is making the right and tough decision for our land and water. The announcement contradicts those in Nebraska that say it’s too late to put regulations in place.” Kleeb continued, “Now, more than ever, the legislature needs to take action on behalf of the citizens of Nebraska. They have run out of excuses.”

Assuming a new route around this sensitive area could be agreed upon, State Department officials, with input from other agencies, would once again have to reconsider the larger role the Keystone XL project would play. “Among the relevant issues that would be considered are environmental concerns—including climate change,” the State Department said in issuing its decision, as well as “energy security, economic impacts, and foreign policy.”

But discussions surrounding the political angle to the decision have run rampant. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was interviewed by Sean Hannity on his radio show, and Perry was quick to condemn Obama’s decision.

“That is stunning to me.

Those tar sands are going to either go west to China or south to the United States,” Perry said. “Buying Canadian crude and bringing it in to the United States makes abundant good sense.”

Obama, in a not-so-typical move for a president, gave interviews to local television stations in Nebraska prior to his announcement. During the interviews, he told anchors that he would be making the decision on the pipeline himself.

“We don’t want, for example, aquifers adversely affected,” Obama said in one interview. “Folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted and so we want to make sure we’re taking the long view of these issues.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the Keystone XL project a “nobrainer,” but Obama’s interviews with local media was the beginning of the end for the project.

The Keystone pipeline delay puts it past next November’s presidential election, potentially taking it off the table as an election issue and, according to some, putting the environment over jobs.

Republicans, who said the Canada-to-Texas pipeline would have created thousands of jobs and would reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, criticized the decision, claiming Obama was caving to politics.

“More than 20,000 new American jobs have just been sacrificed in the name of political expediency,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH. “By punting on this project, the president has made clear that campaign politics are driving U.S. policy decisions—at the expense of American jobs.”

Obama said his decision was based on the need to make sure all the impacts were understood, and White House officials said the final decision was actually made by the State Department.

“Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood,” Obama said in a statement.

The State Department listed 14 other route alternatives in its final environmental impact statement issued in August, but dismissed all of them. Five of those alternative routes would have minimized the pipeline length over Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer and the Sand Hills region or avoided them entirely.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R- NE, praised the decision but admitted that the 2013 date for completion of the required environmental review and public comment period “looks suspiciously political.”

The decision to look for a new route was made by the State Department, said Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

“The White House did not have anything to do with this decision,” she said.

The Keystone XL pipeline has been protested by environmental activists, most recently with an estimated 10,000 showing up at the White House.

President of the Nebraska Farmers Union, John Hansen, said, “This president’s delay provides the legislature with a green light to get caught up with other states who have already claimed their state authorities for oil pipeline routing and siting. Nebraska must use this welcome window of opportunity to claim its routing and siting authority so that the interests of our water, soil, and especially our landowners, can be protected. We do not want our state to continue to be dependent on either the political whims of the State Department or the selfish economic interests of oil pipeline companies.”

Ken Haar, a Nebraska state senator who has led the way on pipeline regulations, said, “The announcement is a victory for every landowner, scientist and citizen who raised the red flag on the current proposed route. We must now, as elected officials, get to work on passing regulations to ensure there is a state-based vehicle for certifying pipeline routes so our state and citizens are never put on pins and needles again.”

Dakota Rural Action (DRA), a South Dakota agriculture and conservation group, applauded Obama’s decision to delay the pipeline.

“DRA has been trying to hold TransCanada accountable since they first announced the pipeline route,” says Paul Seamans, member of DRA and one whose land is being crossed by the pipeline. “We organized South Dakotan landowners into a group forcing Trans- Canada to the negotiation table.”

“DRA had been working to get water quality concerns addressed for three years,” said Seamans, “it’s nice to know the administration is listening.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor