Obama Rejects Construction of Keystone XL Oil PipelineBy Coral Davenport, Nov. 6, 2015
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday announced that he had rejected the request from a Canadian company to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, ending a seven-year review that had become a flash point in the debate over his climate policies.
Mr. Obama’s denial of the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, which would have carried 800,000 barrels a day of carbon-heavy petroleum from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast, comes as he is seeking to build an ambitious legacy onclimate change.
“The pipeline would not make a meaningful long-term contribution to our economy,’’ the president said in remarks from the White House.
The move was made ahead of a major United Nations summit meeting on climate change in Paris in December, when Mr. Obama hopes to help broker a historic agreement committing the world’s nations to enacting new policies to counter global warming. While the rejection of the pipeline is largely symbolic, Mr. Obama has sought to telegraph to other world leaders that the United States is serious about acting on climate change.
The once-obscure Keystone project became a political symbol amid broader clashes over energy, climate change and the economy. The rejection of a single oil infrastructure project will have little impact on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, but the pipeline plan gained an outsize profile after environmental activists spent four years marching and rallying against it in front of the White House and across the country.
The rejection of the pipeline is one of several actions Mr. Obama has taken as he intensifies his push on climate change in his last year in office. In August, he announced his most significant climate policy, a set of aggressive new regulations to cut emissions of planet-warming carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants.
Republicans and the oil industry had demanded that the president approve the pipeline, which they said would create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Many Democrats, particularly those in oil-producing states like North Dakota, also supported the project. In February, congressional Democrats joined with Republicans in sending Mr. Obama a bill to speed approval of the project, but the president vetoed the measure.
Both sides saw the Keystone rejection as a major symbolic step, a sign that the president was willing to risk angering a bipartisan majority of lawmakers in the pursuit of his environmental agenda. And both supporters and critics of Mr. Obama saw the surprisingly powerful influence of environmental activists in the decision.
“Once the grass-roots movement on the Keystone pipeline mobilized, it changed what it meant to the president,” said Douglas G. Brinkley, a historian at Rice University who writes about presidential environmental legacies. “It went from a routine infrastructure project to the symbol of an era.”
Environmental activists cheered the decision as a vindication of their influence. They had sought to block construction of the pipeline because it would have provided a conduit for petroleum extracted from the Canadian oil sands. The process of extracting that oil produces about 17 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than the process of extracting conventional oil.
But numerous State Department reviews concluded that construction of the pipeline would have little impact on whether that type of oil was burned, because it was already being extracted and moving to market via rail and existing pipelines.
“From a market perspective, the industry can find a different way to move that oil,” said Christine Tezak, an energy market analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington firm. “How long it takes is just a result of oil prices. If prices go up, companies will get the oil out.”
However, a State Department review also found that demand for the oil sands fuel would drop if oil prices fell below $65 a barrel, since moving oil by rail is more expensive than using a pipeline. An Environmental Protection Agency review of the project this year noted that under such circumstances, construction of the pipeline could be seen as contributing to emissions, since companies might be less likely to move the oil via expensive rail when oil prices are low — but would be more likely to move it cheaply via the pipeline. The price of oil has plummeted this year, hovering at less than $50 a barrel.
The recent election of a new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, may also have influenced Mr. Obama’s decision. Mr. Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, had pushed the issue as a top priority in the relationship between the United States and Canada, personally urging Mr. Obama to approve the project. Blocking the project during the Harper administration would have bruised ties with a crucial ally. While Mr. Trudeau also supports construction of the Keystone pipeline, he has not made the issue central to Canada’s relationship with the United States, and has criticized Mr. Harper for presenting Canada’s position as an ultimatum, while not taking substantial action on climate change related to the oil sands.
Mr. Trudeau did not raise the issue during his first post-election conversation with Mr. Obama..
The construction would have had little impact on the nation’s economy. A State Department analysis concluded that building the pipeline would have created jobs, but the total number represented less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s total employment. The analysis estimated that Keystone would support 42,000 temporary jobs over its two-year construction period — about 3,900 of them in construction and the rest in indirect support jobs, like food service. The department estimated that the project would create about 35 permanent jobs.
Republicans and the oil industry criticized Mr. Obama for what they have long said was his acquiescence to the pressure of activists and environmentally minded political donors.
Michael Whatley, the vice president of Consumer Energy Alliance, a group that lobbies for the fossil fuel industry, released a statement Friday expressing disappointment in Mr. Obama’s decision.
He has thumbed his nose at more than two thirds of Americans who support reducing energy imports from unfriendly nations; who support job creation; who support friendly relations with our Canadian neighbors; who support regulatory decisions based on science, not politics; and who support big ideas and big achievements.
“This decision clearly flies in the face of volumes of scientific evidence that shows the Keystone XL pipeline would be safe, enhance environmental standards, and be a more cost-effective alternative to importing oil from overseas.”
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said: “It’s a bellwether decision by the president. I think the president made his decision to side with special interests, and that’s the way I see him going for the final two years.”