Not since his year-long dithering before agreeing to double American troop strength in Afghanistan with a commitment to withdraw by a date certain has President Obama so clearly demonstrated his inability to make important decisions. In the interim there have been many examples of his vacillation - budget negotiations with John Boehner, the Libyan revolt, the Benghazi fiasco, and the drip, drip, drip in Syria come to mind - but the endless hand-wringing over the XL Pipeline clearly demonstrates the downside of avoiding makeable decisions.
The factual setting:
- The debate was seriously begun in 2008 when Transcanada Pipline LTD proposed the $7 billion, 1700 mile route from Alberta through Nebraska and Oklahoma and on to refineries on the Gulf - an extension of several other projects which have proceeded with little opposition. Since the pipeline crosses a border the State Department has been the lead federal agency, approving plans for facilities at the border in 2008 and, in a revised Environmental Impact Statement in August of 2011, finding "no significant impacts". The Ogallala aquifer under the Sand Hills of western Nebraska has been the emotional touchpoint; after considering many options, Transcanada has chosen a route approved by the Nebraska government. Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency is responding to its clients and continues to throw up roadblocks, trying to prevent the president from acting on the State Department's direction.
- There are approximately 175 billion barrels of oil located in Alberta in a highly viscous form mixed with clay, sand, and water - enough to meet the total requirement of the United States and Canada for 20 years. The United States uses about 19 million barrels per day; with fracking and horizontal drilling U.S. production is projected to increase to about 8 million bpd next year. Keystone XL would increase capacity by 830,000 barrels per day, on top of current imports from Canada of 2.7 million barrels per day. The alternative is more imports from places like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.
- Extraction of the oil has three environmental impacts: use of large quantities of water, release of 12% more CO2 than conventional oil extraction, and the concentration of heavy metals (chromium, silenium, cobalt, etc.) which have been trapped in the sand. Scientists argue the details, but the general contention of environmental contamination within Canada is clear, and the Canadians will go forward with or without us.
- The United States is criss-crossed by two million miles of energy pipelines, some 50,000 miles of which carry unrefined oil, and many of which already cross Nebraska. The alternatives if Keystone XL is not built? Canadian railroads are now moving about 100,000 carloads of oil per year; rail shipments from the booming Bakken fields in North Dakota (along the proposed XL route) have helped drive US rail shipments to 600,000 rail cars per year; and Canadian pipeline companies are working on routes to west coast ports for China and Canadian east coast refineries. Keystone XL is the least cost, least environmental risk option.
To the environmental movement which is disappointed with Obama's failure to prioritize "cap and trade" legislation, their inability to slow down the state-regulated fracking revolution, and failure of several years of international "climate change" conferences, Keystone XL has become the cause celebre. (Lest one feel too sorry for them, they have decimated the coal industry and prevented a once-promising nuclear renaissance.) All of the usual suspects are railing against the pipeline - The Sierra Club, The National Wildlife Federation, The National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth. The objective is to shut down carbon-based energy at its source; from there the logic breaks down completely.
Poor Barrack. If he had said OK back in 2009 this could have been a non-issue. As it is, he has the ideologues screaming for him to stop the river from flowing. And the poor fellow must do something.
This week's video shows Senator Ted Cruz' perspective on President Obama's effort to scuttle the immigration bill - as he did as a senator in 2006. All else is possible, if Republicans are not faced with millions of new Democratic voters in the next few years.