The politics of the Keystone XL pipeline

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Just as the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline project reaches a critical phase in Washington, D.C., more roadblocks are popping up to stop flow of oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S.

But for Bernard Weinstein, the associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, the pipeline???s  six-year odyssey involving the Obama White House and Congress has been a form of kabuki theater featuring the project???s supporters looking for ways to get it moving while President Obama seeks to stop it.

???For those who are against the pipeline, this is his litmus test,??? Weinstein told ???Basically, this is all about politics.???

In the latest round of the pipeline drama, the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday sent a letter to the State Department questioning the effect the crash in global oil prices would have on production levels in Canada???s oil-sands region and worrying it would lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

In an earlier analysis, the State Department reported the oil in Alberta would be developed whether regardless of Keystone???s approval.

Weinstein, a supporter of the 1,179-mile pipeline, said the EPA letter is a stalling tactic from the Obama administration.

???Obama???s just been playing games,??? Weinstein said. ???It???s been one excuse after another and EPA, it???s funny, they call these executive agencies independent. They???re not independent at all. They bend to the will of the White House.???

Environmental organizations pounced on the EPA???s letter.

???In a city where bureaucrats rarely say things right out loud, the EPA has come pretty close,??? said Bill McKibben, founder of the climate advocacy group ???Its knife-sharp comments make clear that despite the State Department???s relentless spin, Keystone is a climate disaster by any realistic assessment. The president???s got every nail he needs to finally close the coffin on this boondoggle.???

But along the way, crashing oil prices have complicated the pipeline.

???As oil prices go down and the supply of oil seems to be growing, the environmentalists who hate this pipeline are using that as an argument that the economic case for this pipeline is sort of evaporating before our eyes,??? said Gerald Seib, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal.

A spokesman for TransCanada, the company planning to build the pipeline, said the EPA review is unnecessary because, in part, Keystone XL was first proposed when oil was trading at $40 a barrel, which is $13 lower than where it was trading Tuesday.

Greg Stringham, vice president of oil-sands and marketing at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the State Department already has addressed the key points of the pipeline.

???From our perspective, the answers are there,??? Stringham told Canada???s Financial Post. ???The President can choose to use them or not. It will be in the end a political decision.???

Events are moving quickly on the pipeline on Capitol Hill.

Just hours after the EPA letter was released, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives announced the chamber will vote next week on Keystone XL. The GOP-controlled Senate already passed a bill approving the pipeline on a 62-36 vote.

But Obama has vowed to veto any bill approving the project, questioning whether Keystone XL would boost jobs as well as whether it???s ???not adding to the problem of climate change.???

So what happens if the White House vetoes the bill?

Republicans say Obama would take a political hit, citing polls that show a majority of Americans favor the pipeline, including a Pew Research poll in 2013 that showed even51 percent of Democrats approved.

???Finally, we will know if the president will side with American jobs and North American energy security or not,??? House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

But Republicans likely don???t have enough votes to override a presidential veto. The Senate needs 67 votes to override the president???s veto.

However, that may not mean Keystone XL is dead this year.

There???s speculation the GOP leadership may fold the pipeline into a larger spending bill that would fund some of the pet projects Obama touted in his State of the Union address, such as infrastructure spending. A veto could leave the president in a potentially awkward position.

???In talking with everyone we???ve spoken with in Washington, there???s kind of a sense of inevitability that if the president does veto the bill that the whole Keystone pipeline will be put back before him, attached to some other measure, in the coming months,??? Jim Prentice, the premier of Alberta, told a media conference call. ???And that would take place sometime this spring.???

But that could mean a perilous political journey on Capitol Hill, where the best-laid plans often stumble.

???Several weeks ago, I said what the president should do is negotiate with Congress and not just say flat out he???s going to veto this,??? Weinstein said in a telephone interview. ???Cut some kind of a deal. Maybe get the Republicans to back off their opposition to Obamacare and he would trade Keystone approval. This is a possibility, but I just don???t know. This president doesn???t like to negotiate.???


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