No one knows how the Keystone XL pipeline extension controversy will play out during the current U.S. presidential election campaign, and whether it will lead to, or what role it might play in, a Democratic or Republican victory.
Since the issue heated up last year, supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline – specifically, the proposed 1,179-mile (1,897-kilometer) section that would bring oil sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska – say that the pipeline is critical to job creation, the economy, and energy independence. Opponents say it crosses fragile ecosystems, increases potential for oil spills, and has a negative impact on climate change because it relies on crude from oil sands, which is more emissions-intensive than regular crude oil. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires a State Department environmental review, a presidential permit and determination of whether or not it is in America’s national interest.
Some high-profile Republicans have argued that the pipeline will only be approved if President Barack Obama is voted out of office in November, yet there is little evidence to suggest that this is anything more than a political statement, like so much of the mud-slinging that has occurred over the pipeline.
Rather, many believe the final outcome will be that Keystone XL is ultimately approved regardless of who gets elected. There are a number of reasons for this opinion.
Construction is Only Temporarily Delayed
First, the delay in construction is only temporary, not permanent. The State Department (DOS) has reaffirmed its intention to make its final decision in the first quarter of 2013. In its initial environmental impact statement, released August 2011, the DOS indicated that because of the demand for crude oil at the Gulf Coast refineries as well as concerns over energy security, it would be preferable for America’s national interest to realign the pipeline route rather than to not build it at all. Given that TransCanada has submitted a new route away from the ecologically sensitive, and highly controversial, Nebraska Sand Hills and Ogallala aquifer, and given that little else in the equation has changed, approval is likely.
Opposition is Strong, But so is Support
Second, although President Obama faces fierce opposition from environmental organizations in his traditional support base, including a recent lawsuit over Keystone’s Gulf Coast section, labor unions support the project. Meanwhile, Nebraskan landowners who oppose the project generally do not support the Democrats are being courted by TransCanada with increasing monetary compensation (with mixed results).
Third, despite significant opposition, some commentators say the majority of Americans are not interested in nor directly affected by the pipeline. This may be why they are inclined to focus on TransCanada and Republican statements that the project will create thousands of jobs, and why they support the project. With the unemployment rate continuing unchanged at 8.2%, a Washington Post poll conducted last month shows that 62 percent of registered voters support the pipeline’s construction.
Purported Job and Economic Benefits Continue to be Exaggerated
Experts agree that statements about the direct line between pipeline construction and economic benefits, including job creation, have been vastly overestimated. In fact, Media Matters indicates the pipeline is widely regarded as a jobs issue and that the media continues to exaggerate the jobs numbers. Earlier this year, the State Department indicated the amount of jobs to be no more than 6,000, and a Cornell University report showed that the overwhelming majority of jobs would be temporary; that a portion would be in Canada, not the United States; and that some of those jobs should not be included because TransCanada is already using them for the significant work currently underway in Canada and the U.S. In addition, the Cornell report shows that the unemployment rate would barely change with the addition of Keystone jobs. This evidence should not be taken lightly: even the New York Times cites the project as having a $7 billion budget, when in fact that figure includes the budget for both the U.S. and Canada. The more accurate budget for Keystone XL in America, as the Cornell report indicates, is closer to $4 billion.
A Wider Conversation on Fossil Fuels is Needed
In addition to its minimal impact on jobs and the economy, some experts argue the pipeline is unlikely to have a major effect on the global environment (rather, it is more likely to impact local ecosystems, such as on riparian forests and grasslands, depending on its final route). Canada is determined to make use of oil sands oil, whether it goes to America or Asia. The larger issue is American dependence on fossil fuels more generally. As Alyssa Battistoni of Salon.com points out, Keystone protester Bill McKibben would rather use the pipeline as a way to start a new conversation about climate change rather than to focus solely on the limited effects of the project itself.
In other words, a broader discussion would get to the heart of how to decrease American and global consumption of oil, and thereby reduce demand of oil from the oil sands. Such a long-term, complex issue remains, regardless of who is elected in November and whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline is approved.