Keystone XL: Is the Pipeline Really in the National Interest?

Is the Keystone XL pipeline in the national interest? That is the question put before President Obama.

The president quite arguably has the toughest job on Earth. As leader of the "free world," Obama's decisions can have a direct impact on this planet. That said, his upcoming decision later this year on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline has environmental and economic consequences.

If the construction plans go through, environmentalists will be in an uproar over possible oil leaks (which occur often) and increased carbon emissions. If the plan does not go through, the company behind it will find another way to profit from the tar sands. If that happens, the president will be blamed for letting jobs opportunities slip away.

Much has run on the front pages covering immigration, gay rights, gun control, and budget talks, and now the Keystone XL pipeline is again in the review process. With a recent poll showing a healthy majority of Americans supporting the controversial, intensive, and ecologically unhealthy project, the Keystone XL pipeline is back in the news.

The Pew Research Center polled 1,500 adults and found that 66% of Americans favor the pipeline construction. Less than half that number opposed it. This was before an ExxonMobil oil spill in suburban Arkansas resulted in 22 homes being evacuated.

A pertinent point worth noting is when separating those who favor the Keystone XL among political parties, Republicans outweigh their liberal counterparts in favor of the project 82% to 54%, respectively. That divide may be expected, but it quantifies the difficult decision President Obama faces.

When discussing the pipeline, or any related issue under the climate change umbrella, one has to refer to James Hansen, the outspoken former NASA scientist-turned-environmentalist. Mr. Hansen argues that the tar sands which TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone Pipeline, hopes to extract from Canada and transport across the U.S. are much heavier in carbon than other oil sources and constitute a nearly untapped resource. This will not only result in greater carbon emissions, but will lead to further digging and new projects.

President Obama pledged to combat climate change in his first State of the Union of his second term. If Congress does not act on his agenda, the president could utilize the EPA. The authority is there under the Clean Air Act for the EPA to regulate oversight duties and collect fees and penalties for businesses that do environmental harm. The greatest obstacle in this path would of course be sequestration and its effects on the EPA's budget.

Currently, the pipeline is in a public review phase. The State Department completed its most recent review, with the overall takeaway being that TransCanada would find a way to produce oil from the tar sands with or without the border-crossing pipeline. If the U.S. were to approve it, that would be a modest boost to construction jobs in the Midwest area along the planned route.

This public review acts as a debate where people could comment and include their reasons for or against the construction. This phase lasts 45 days and into mid-April. The State Department's review in 2011 ended with less positive results for TransCanada as the proposed route at that time posed greater risks to regional aquifers and watersheds.

The ultimate decision will be made in late summer or early fall. Regardless of the State Department's review, TransCanada’s re-done and supposedly safer route, and the EPA's own impact report, the ultimate decision on this issue will come directly from the Oval Office.

Even though the State Department's review is being debated publicly, environmental protesters would still be voicing their well-grounded concerns.

In a recent fundraising trip to San Francisco, the president encountered protests organized by groups such as the Sierra Club and CREDO. They have argued that the tar sands are more corrosive than oil and the safety precautions TransCanada has put in place will not be enough to prevent a massive spill. They refer back to the Gulf of Mexico’s oil spill and the billions that it cost to clean that up.

Another factor that the president will have to take into account aside from the jobs TransCanada will help create or environmental concerns is the changing landscape of the oil and natural gas industry. With technological enhancements in fracking and drilling for oil, states such as Texas and North Dakota with the Bakken formation have provided a massive boom to regional economies.

U.S. oil production is at a 20-year high while demand is at a 17-year low. According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. could become the global leader in oil exports by the end of this decade. If the Keystone XL is completed, that will only make the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. This, coupled with Obama’s push for more fuel-efficient cars and greater renewable energy sources being added to the energy grid, may make oil a distant memory in a few decades.

As evidenced by the Pew Research Center poll and last month's Senate vote approving the pipeline, there is bipartisan support in favor of TransCanada’s plans. The Senate vote was non-binding, but symbolic nonetheless. Still, President Obama can look back to his first term and see the devastating impact in the Gulf of Mexico. The leader of the "free world" may have to take that chance in order to meet his broader goals surrounding climate change.