Keystone XL Pipeline Might Still Happen Despite Obama Opposition

A bipartisan group of senators is attempting an end run to achieve approval on the stalled Keystone XL pipeline. The bill, introduced on March 14, would invoke powers held by Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to leapfrog both the president and the State Department to approve the construction of the pipeline. Given that Nebraska recently dropped its opposition to the proposed route and that the bill has bipartisan support, it seems as if tar sands will be flowing through the Midwest in the near future.

The latest State Department report on the project proclaims it benign in terms of environmental threats. Compiled under contract by Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the report analyzed the impact that construction and operation of the pipeline would have on soils, groundwater resources, climate change, and endangered species along the proposed route. It was found that construction of the pipeline would create only minimal permanent disturbances to the environment and that major spills would have only "localized effects" on ground water and other resources. However, there have been a number of accusations that ERM is in the pocket of the oil industry and that the findings of the report are skewed to heavily favor those interests.

Of course, the bipartisan group of senators who have sponsored the bill each have something to gain from it. The pipeline will pass through most of their states, allowing them to claim responsibility for the jobs created when the pipeline comes to town. The pipeline may also help to move oil produced as a result of the shale oil boom in North Dakota and Montana, bringing additional revenues into those states. And in an unsurprising turn, given the modus operandi of the American political system, each co-sponsoring senator has received campaign money from the oil and gas industry.

Senator Hoeven, the main Republican backing the bill, seems confident that it will achieve veto-proof passage. He sees the drop in opposition from Nebraska as key. The jobs argument is strong, with estimates of 5,000–20,000 positions created in the construction phase. In a predictable reversal, though, this number dwindles to an estimate of 127 once the pipeline moves into operation. With the broad economy still struggling, 20,000 jobs, even temporary ones, is seen as an opportunity not to be passed up in a Congress whose approval ratings are still smarting from sequestration and budget battles.

Whatever the true environmental and economic impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline, the decision on whether or not it will be built may soon be in the hands of Congress. Undoubtedly both houses will be pushing hard for passage of the bill so that they can make the claim that the benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline were bought through their efforts in spite of the protestations of the president.