Keystone Pipeline Fight Is Not Over

As Bill McKibben and his environmental supporters bask in a well-deserved satisfaction of the now-infamous Keystone XL pipeline denial, a close reading of the president's statement indicates reason for concern.

In what would have otherwise been another slam-dunk for the petroleum industry, McKibben et al. can take credit for bringing the issue and its deleterious impact on American farmers and climate change to the public's attention.

The case against the pipeline is overwhelming with the Natural Resources Defense Council warning that synthetic crude made from tar sands will generate three times as much CO2 pollution as conventional crude oil production because the extremely heavy, thick viscous bitumen (tar) requires great amounts of water and energy in order to flow through a pipe.

At issue has been the route of the pipeline, which would run through the Sandhills, designated a distinct ecoregion area of significance by the World Wildlife Fund that sits atop the all-important Ogallala aquifer. The Ogallala spans eight states and is responsible for providing ground water for 27% of all the irrigated land in the US as well as drinking water for 82% of residents who live within its borders.

In 2011, the president announced he would 'delay' a decision on the pipeline until 2013. At that time, McKibben and other environmentalists hailed Obama's decision as a defeat for the pipeline in that such a delay would create onerous costs and the project would collapse under its own weight. However, shortly after the President's decision, Alex Pourbaix, Trans Canada's president, made it clear that the company would re-route the pipeline in order to receive approval when he announced that "I can confirm the route will be changed."

Congressional proponents were, however, not content to wait until 2013 as Republicans attached a rider to the payroll tax bill requiring a presidential decision on the pipeline within 60 days. How that timeline requirement made it through a Democrat-controlled Senate remains a mystery.

But here's where political reality collides with environmental ethos -- as McKibben, NRDC and others rejoice in the president's most recent decision to deny, it is curious that the TC's already agreed-to compromise with the State of Nebraska last November to reroute the pipeline has fallen through the cracks. At that time, TC indicated that a reroute would add 30-40 miles of pipe and an additional pumping station and that a supplemental environmental assessment would take more than a year to complete.

Despite TC's earlier vehemence about sticking to their original route and from my years of wrestling alligators at FOE (i.e., challenging the nuclear industry), I know that the industry's stated public posture can be very different from what they are willing to settle for when the chips are down -- and in this case, it would be naïve not to think that while TC was publicly pushing for the maximum, they already had a reroute plan in their hip pocket. Unlike average citizens who actively oppose the pipeline, the industry has the resources to play the waiting-game as they string out the opposition with bureaucratic delays and amoral obfuscations.

In perhaps the most unkind cut of all is that the president's two-paragraph statement of denial makes no mention of the pipeline's impact on climate or agriculture but rather refers to a new environmental assessment and that "this announcement is not a prejudgment of the merits of the pipeline" and further that this decision "does not change my Administration's commitment to American-made energy that creates jobs and reduces our dependence on oil." What the president is saying between-the-lines is that his denial of the pipeline is a temporary one, pending submission of an amended application with a route that will steer clear of the sand hills and the Ogallala.

While House Speaker John Boehner is correct when he says, "this fight is not over" but Bill McKibben and his idealistic cohorts need to take heart and not lose sight of the goal or ever forget that the Keystone pipeline is worth the fight. They have come too far to be discouraged by the rough street game of American politics or the realization that the playing field is not level. They did it once, they can do it again.