The White House has decided to delay making a final decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election. But the indefinite postponement may ultimately kill the proposed pipeline.
U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that no decision will be made on the fate of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election. After months of high-level protest and more than a thousand arrests, the decision has been indefinitely delayed, leaving proponents of the pipeline concerned the deal may never be struck up again.
Canada's Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, spoke at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu recently, and told Bloomberg News that “the decision to delay it that long is actually quite a crucial decision. I’m not sure this project would survive that kind of delay.”
And always one to be looking for an alternative, Flaherty quickly added that “it may mean that we may have to move quickly to ensure that we can export our oil to Asia through British Columbia.”
(According to the CBC, "Flaherty was referring to another pipeline, the Northern Gateway project proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge, to carry oilsands crude from near Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains to a terminal at Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded aboard tankers.")
Obama's decision will play well with his base of Democratic supporters, as on the surface it appears to be a striking environmental victory. Konrad Yakabuski at the Globe and Mail noted that "approving the $7-billion project aimed at transporting about 700,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico coast would further demoralize progressives who believed in Mr. Obama and campaigned hard for him in 2008."
And with the President already campaigning for his job ahead of the 2012 election, making a potentially polarizing decision when he can easily delay must have struck many in his administration as a needless risk.
That decision to delay was also based on aggressive opposition in Republican Nebraska, where the proposed pipeline would have run through important agricultural farm and ranch land, in addition to the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala is one of the world's largest aquifers, spanning roughly 174,000 square miles across eight U.S. states, including Nebraska. There is significant concern over oil spills affecting the water quality of an aquifer that supplies roughly 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the entire United States.
Opposition to the pipeline running through the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region was especially strong both within Nebraska and across the country. A cornerstone of the decision to delay comes from the State Department, who noted that they simply would not have had enough time to find an alternative route within Nebraska that did not pose such significant risks.
And because the State Department did not feel they had sufficient time to make a informed decision, they felt the best course of action was to delay until a better route - still within Nebraska, if it happens at all - could be found.
Yet some worry that the environmentalists touting climate change implications as a primary reason for opposing the pipeline may have made a Faustian bargain without even know it.
Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that argues the same tactics environmentalists used this time to oppose the pipeline will be the kind of tactics they themselves will oppose later on if they continue to push for the U.S. to build green energy infrastructure.
The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable.
And since local opposition in Nebraska was so influential in helping block the pipeline (which most environmentalists wanted to halt), it will be local opposition to green energy - be it wind farms or solar panels - that environmentalists will be looking to the government in future to override.
This will leave environmentalists with difficult decisions to make, Levi writes, because these two endeavors will inevitably conflict.
In the short term, environmentalists should relish the critical decision made by the White House to delay any decision on the Keystone XL. But ultimately, the way in which the decision to delay was reached may have wide-reaching implications for the future of other large-scale public infrastructure projects that environmentalists may support.
It may be the oil and coal industries who have the last laugh.