Republicans don't like President Barack Obama's long delay in making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline. I don't like it, either: I wish he'd just tell TransCanada to shove their pipeline up their own backcountry.
But could the President's delay be clever cowardice?
Every day the President leaves the Keystone XL case open is another day that some other political entity may do his job for him and block the pipeline. Just a couple weeks ago, a Nebraska District Court judge ruled unconstitutional a Nebraska law allowing the Governor and TransCanada to use eminent domain for Keystone XL, effectively blocking the pipeline unless a higher court or the Nebraska Legislature takes action. This morning, Peter Marriman reports that TransCanada's authorization to build Keystone XL in South Dakota runs out in June. If the President and Nebraska don't clear the way for Keystone XL by June, TransCanada would have seek approval from our Public Utilities Commission all over again. If that happens, PUC Commissioner Gary Hanson promises due diligence and predicts "protracted" hearings.
By delaying the federal green light, President Obama gives anti-pipeline activists more time and more targets. U.S. Senate candidate David Domina can fight in the Nebraska courts. Lakota tribes, ranchers, and the Sierra Club can lobby the South Dakota PUC and DENR. And if those opponents manage to succeed in any state, the President doesn't have to take the heat for stopping Keystone XL.
The President's Keystone delay also serves the interest of long-term conservation. I look at our oil supply the same way I look at our coal supply. Back in 2009, while discussing clean energy legislation, I argued that we should conserve coal so future generations will have more coal available:
I like to believe in technological progress. I like to believe that if we just keep thinking and tinkering, someone will come up with fusion in a jar or anti-matter engines that will light cities and launch spaceships on a few drops of water.
But suppose we don't. Suppose we can't overcome the limitations of earthly materials and energy inputs to make fusion or other alternatives affordable and scalable by 2143. Our descendants look up from the flickering screens on their computers and see that last pile of coal being shoveled into Big Stone XVI. What do they do... besides curse us? "Dang it!" they'll grumble over candlelit dinners. "We were getting close on fusion. If we just had 20 more years of coal, we could have completed that work and built some reactors. Now we've got to spend all day digging for peat. But our ancestors in 2009 couldn't sacrifice a little bit of GDP to help us out. They just had to have their plasma screen TVs and leave their computers plugged in while they slept" [Cory Allen Heidelberger, "Vote for the Future: Cap Carbon, Cut Coal, Conserve for Great-Great-Great Grandkids," Madville Times, 2009.08.13].
We can make the same argument for the tar sands oil Keystone XL will ship. Just as every passing day gives the Nebraska courts or the SDPUC a chance to raise a legal roadblock to Keystone XL, each passing day also gives inventors and dreamers a chance to come up with that jar fusion or water-drop alchemizer or natural-gas car to render Keystone XL financially uncompetitive, if not technologically unnecessary. And if we don't develop better alternatives, taking longer to build Keystone XL still enforces restraint in our energy consumption, giving our descendants more time (hey, every year helps!) to fall back on fossil fuels.
I can't fully defend President Obama from the charges my columnizing (though rarely calumnifying) colleague Ken Blanchard would level, that the President's Keystone XL delay is cowardly do-nothingness. I also can't defend conservation as an absolute principle: conservation in the extreme would mean using zero energy, and the engine of progress doesn't run on empty.
But I don't share Blanchard's economic fatalism. If Keystone XL can be stopped, President Obama's delay maximizes the opportunity for states, activists, technology, and even the market to stop it. He also cleverly keeps TransCanada on the hook: had the President nixed Keystone XL back in 2011, the oil interests would have turned immediately to alternative pipeline routes. As it is, we wait, and waiting on shipping all the tar sands to China to burn is fine with me.