“Sometimes you don’t get to pick the perfect fight” – Comments on the Politics of Keystone XL

This week’s New Yorker profiles the movement prevailing on President Obama to oppose construction of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.  To this excellent article, I’ll merely note the following: whatever the Administration’s conclusion as to whether this pipeline will “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” there remains a clear political rationale for opposing it as part of a larger climate strategy.  Withholding approval for Keystone XL could make it a bargaining chip in future negotiations over comprehensive climate legislation – thereby giving the President (or whoever succeeds him) sorely needed leverage with members of Congress from oil-and-gas states.


In his June climate speech the President reaffirmed his support for a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one that Republican and Democratic senators worked on together a few years ago.”  As detailed in another New Yorker piece from 2010, the last major effort to enact a “bipartisan, market-based solution” died in the Senate amid near-complete opposition from Republicans and weak support from Democrats in coal/oil-and-gas states.  Securing 60 votes for any future such legislation is likely to require every conceivable source of leverage; recall that the beginning efforts to court Republican and industry support for the 2010 Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill included promises to, among other things, vastly expand offshore oil drilling along the East and Gulf Coasts and pre-empt the EPA’s approval to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Unseemly (and, in the case of Kerry-Graham-Lieberman, futile) as this political horse-trading may be, it will be essential to shepherding any “bipartisan, market-based solution” to climate change through Congress (just as backroom deals were key to passing the Affordable Care Act).  The Administration ought therefore to be stock-piling every possible source of leverage to be used in future climate negotiations.  Continuing Republican efforts to force the President’s hand on the Keystone XL decision suggest the approval permit for this pipeline to be a potentially valuable chip indeed.  Even if credible climate legislation does not surface for a few years, the Administration could help lay the groundwork for its success by withholding approval for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Preserving Keystone XL as a bargaining chip in future climate negotiations will enable the Administration to compensate for some of its previous gaffes in this area.   During the 2010 push for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, the Administration repeatedly rolled out energy/climate policies favored by Republicans and moderate Democrats – expanded offshore drilling,delayed implementation of EPA carbon regulations, billions in nuclear loan guarantees – without extracting any cooperation in return.  This effectively squandered the inducements that Kerry-Graham-Lieberman could have used to solicit votes.  Approving the Keystone XL pipeline risks repeating that same mistake.  When comprehensive climate legislation again reemerges in the US Congress – a development that, however distant it may now seem, is the President’s own avowed goal – climate advocates will be in a stronger position if they can use pipeline approval as a means to bring reluctant colleagues to the table.

The idea of maintaining the Keystone XL as a politically controversial energy issue (similar to the status of oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge) is open to criticism.  Perhaps the Canadians will instead ship oil to the Gulf Coast by rail and/or build pipelines to export oil from their coasts (though a pipeline to the Gulf will always be more cost-effective than rail, and new pipelines within Canada will take years to build).  Perhaps the strategy will backfire and diminish support for action on climate change (though a grassroots “build Keystone” movement has yet to materialize).  Perhaps, after bowing to popular pressure to oppose the pipeline, it is unrealistic to expect President Obama (or any Democratic successor) to reverse the decision (though, as noted, past negotiations over comprehensive climate legislation have effectively put everything on the table).  Or, perhaps Republicans – though eager to torment the President over Keystone now – will simply never care about building a pipeline to Canada enough to endure the blow-back from climate deniers in their own party.  In my view, the need for all available leverage to pass future climate legislation justifies accepting these risks.

The grassroots anti-Keystone movement has succeeded at forcing President Obama to reconsider what had seemed a foregone conclusion.  At the end of the New Yorker piece, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer observes that: “Sometimes you don’t get to pick the perfect fight.  Sometimes, someone punches you in the face and you’re in the fight.”  As President Obama decides whether to approve Keystone XL, he ought to favor a decision that will strengthen his hand in the fight he does want – the fight in Congress for a market-based solution to climate change.  The demands of that fight suggest withholding approval for Keystone XL to be the politically smart move.

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