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Obama’s Delay on Keystone XL Cowardly but Clever?

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.


  1. Jessie 2014.03.02

    Obama does not want to have the refusal available as fuel for the Republicans during the midterm election cycle. Therefore, any delay he or other Democrats can create is to the good.

    Cowardice? Naah. Simple political manuevering. Taking the heat for not making the decision is small potatos.

  2. mike from iowa 2014.03.02

    Obie is gonna get hammered by wingnuts regardless of which way the cat jumps. The party of no-the audacity of nope,have had a big hard-on for him since he was legally elected,something dumb bass dubya managed to not do twice. He has certainly been a big disappointment to me,like having dumb bass dubya redux redux,ad nauseum.

  3. Winston 2014.03.02

    Here is what I am afraid is going to happen. Obama will keep this pipeline delayed throughout his presidency, which is a good thing. But then along comes "Pro-business" Clinton45 in January of 2017, who will sign-off on the construction of Keystone just like her hubby would, who okayed NAFTA, Medicare Advantage for the rich, a weakening of the Glass-Steagall Act, and granted favorite nation trading status to a currency manipulating China.

    Act II of the Keystone saga is not what Obama will do next or how, but what will Hillary do in 2017? Unless you can tell me who the Republican will be who can defeat Hillary in 2017 - and if that is the case, then Keystone will definitely be approved down the road regardless of Obamas current political antics.

  4. Jerry 2014.03.02

    Good article Mr. Clanton. I think the president is doing just fine by watching the grass grow. I hope he continues to do so on this issue as well as Ukraine. Republicans are bitching and moaning about not doing anything when all they want to do is start wars and further kill the planet. We need to stop treating our mother with so much disrespect and try to heal her while we can. Vote democratic for climate change.

  5. Roger Cornelius 2014.03.02

    I'm inclined to agree with Mike, the President will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Hopefully he will hold his decision until after the mid terms.

    At the same, President Obama has shown that he can be bold when he chooses to, so I wouldn't be surprised with an in your face decision. What does he have to lose?

    He needs to say a big "NO" to Keystone XL!

  6. Rorschach 2014.03.02

    The President is just doing China a favor by kinking the hose with the dirtiest of dirty oil. The smog is so bad in Beijing and their other megacities that one can hardly see his/her hand in front of his/her face. They literally can't see the sun through the smog in their biggest cities. He's just giving China some tough love telling them "no bitumen for Yu."

  7. Jessie 2014.03.02

    Roger, I think Obama does have something to lose if the blowback from a bold "no" causes other Dems to lose their midterm races. The Dems hold on the Senate is tenuous.

    Me, I love it when no-drama Obama gets in someone's face but he has to choose his battles and this one is best left simmering as long as possible. As I often say to friends and family when they are angry about something, "You can piss 'em off now or you can piss 'em off later. Which is best for you? Which choice, now or later, gets you what you want?"

  8. larry kurtz 2014.03.02

    Calling Barack Obama cowardly in any pretext is bullshit. Cory: try harder.

  9. larry kurtz 2014.03.02

    Where would the fill come from to build atop the Pierre shale in western South Dakota if the KXL land grab is approved, people?

  10. grudznick 2014.03.02

    The South Unit, Larry. The South Unit.

  11. larry kurtz 2014.03.02

    gravity is a fickle mistress, mr. anderson.

  12. Roger Cornelius 2014.03.02


    If you will look again, I did say I hope he holds off until after the mid-terms.

    If he does hold off until after the mid-terms the Republicans will make that a campaign issue as well.

  13. larry kurtz 2014.03.02

    You guys have land in the Creighton area: right, Mr. Anderson?

  14. Samm 2 2014.03.02

    It is time to get the Keystone pipline built, we all drive cars and need energy. We are now railing Ethonal and Crude Oil on a over crowded rail system, sooner or later we will have a mis hap that will hurt many people. Caselton Norh Dakota was a near miss. Unless we want to go back to the stone age this pipline needs to be built soon not later

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.03.02

    Samm2, we don't need Keystone XL to put gas in our cars... unless by "we," you are speaking as a global citizen (oops: not correct, as more people in the world don't have cars than do) or a Chinese operative. We have a surplus. Keystone XL will drain that surplus, send it to China, and raise our prices.

  16. mike from iowa 2014.03.03

    You're in the middle of a field. You have a 2000 lb bull charging you from one direction. You have a 1500 lb bear charging you from the other direction. Which do you shoot first? Shoot the bear(pipeline) first. You can always shoot the bull later. To tell the truth there has already been more than enough bull shot on this subject. This bitumen is destined for Gulf Coast refineries and will then be sold to China. It is not now, and has never been for the benefit of American drivers. You have been sold a bill of lies by wingnuts who want to rush this ecological disaster through before you wise up. America needs this monstrosity about like we need a repeat of dumb bass dubya's fiscal policies.

  17. barry freed 2014.03.03

    There is a third possibility, by letting the Lower Courts work it out and not using his Executive Power, he is not clever, nor cowardly, he is Constitutional.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.03.03

    Well put, Barry! Good third C.

  19. DB 2014.03.03

    "Keystone XL will drain that surplus, send it to China, and raise our prices."

    Cory, you should let us all know how not increasing the supply while the global demand is always increasing will keep prices low for us. I'd love to hear this.

  20. larry kurtz 2014.03.03

    Higher fuel costs always benefit South Dakota: just ask the PUC.

  21. mike from iowa 2014.03.03

    This guy contends that Communists and collectivists take people's properties. Kinda like the state of SoDak and Keystone declaring eminent domain to build something not in the land owner's best interests. I guess that makes capitalists/wingnuts communists.

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.03.03

    DB, if local supply is high, our prices will be lower than they will when China can drain that supply. It's like land prices: farm land prices rise faster when outside investors bid up the price.

  23. lesliengland 2014.03.03

    this pipeline passes through the United States, where most of this fuel from Canada would be going to export from Texas ports …

    It is exempt from the oil spill insurance program, so that if there is a spill, it’s not even paid for.

    Retiring Rep. Rush Holt tells us why "millions will die" due to climate change -- but why the solution is a bargain
    Josh Eidelson salon, 3/3/14

    And we know there are spills; there have been spills of this very substance … spills that are environmentally damaging.

    So that’s the risk, and there’s no gain. It’s to be sold overseas. We don’t even collect environmental insurance money for it …

  24. DB 2014.03.03

    "DB, if local supply is high, our prices will be lower than they will when China can drain that supply. It's like land prices: farm land prices rise faster when outside investors bid up the price."

    There is no such thing as local supply when talking about a global commodity. The price for a barrel of oil is based on the global supply. Even if we have a surplus, they will just sell it to the highest bidder which will always be China if their demands aren't met. There is plenty to gain, and even more to lose if we don't build the pipeline. The environment will only be hurt worse if all this oil goes by rail....and our prices will just increase more if the supply doesn't increase with demand. Telling China they can't modernize is not going to happen. Outside investors have very little impact on the price of land as compared to the demand for corn for ethanol or other crops that is the main driver of land prices. Increase demand for global commodities like wheat, soybeans, and corn and everything will rise along with it just like we are seeing. That bubble will pop soon so don't worry.

  25. Jerry 2014.03.03

    Wow, ships carrying loads of gasoline to China. Very tempting targets for determined gunmen. Talk about a big ole boom in the Panama Canal (both of them), even more environmental damage. Of course, that part of it would not be in CONUS and it would only kill shrimp and fish and damage the ecosystems of the oceans. So here we are, absolutely destroying our world for the betterment of the Koch brothers. Some of us are not to bright.

  26. Bill Dithmer 2014.03.03

    Great link Larry. I found most interesting what mayor Keesis had to sa about boomtowns.

    “I’ve been in boomtowns all my life: Wyoming, Texas, California, Colorado, Alaska, everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be near as bad as what people have in their minds. The oilfield, as with any other occupation like this, has really mellowed over the last 20 years. It’s not the Wild West like it used to be. . . . But you’ve got to take a little bad with the good."

    These articles seem to say something completely different.

    Is the mayor stupid, or does he think everyone else is?

    The Blindman

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.03.03

    How many times do I have to say this: we have an empirical example of a local bubble in the global economy. I've told you every time we have this discussion that West Texas crude sells at a discount compared to Brent crude because of the glut at Cushing. I've provided links previously saying that TransCanada wants to make more money by clearing that glut and closing that price gap. I've submitted links showing that the southern leg of KXL has already closed some of that gap. Do I have to shout the facts to get them through to you? My economic analysis is backed up by facts. Our gas prices will be higher post-Keystone XL than they would be sans-KXL.

  28. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.03.03

    And we have nothing to lose by not building the pipeline. No one says we have to let them ship that oil by rail. If that mode of transport is too dangerous, then we clearly need stronger regulations to check the urge for profit.

  29. Jerry 2014.03.03

    I question why the Canadians will not build a refinery in Canada.

  30. Douglas Wiken 2014.03.03


    "Keystone XL will drain that surplus, send it to China, and raise our prices."

    Cory, you should let us all know how not increasing the supply while the global demand is always increasing will keep prices low for us. I'd love to hear this."

    Currently US oil cannot be exported. What China does will have no impact unless XL is finished. Trans Canada told Bloomberg News the primary reason for the pipeline was to raise gasoline and diesel prices in midwest by 10 to 20 cents per gallon.

    Trans Canada TV and newspaper ads and dog and pony shows around the state have all been loaded with a mixture of outright fallacy and information intentionally misleading even if not completely false.

  31. larry kurtz 2014.03.03

    Thanks, Bill. Do you have a twitter account?

  32. mike from iowa 2014.03.03

    Read last week one RR is buying up to 5000 new,improved tanker cars to carry oil safer. Canada needs to shop their mess to their coast and not endanger the US environment. Koch Bros own acres of bitumen sands and they are invested in Texas refineries. They will be basically the only Americans that get any benefit from this pipeline.

  33. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.03.03

    Bakken oil is shipped through MN by rail. Several trains pass through Minneapolis and St. Paul daily. The crash and subsequent fire in Casselton, ND, got the MN legislature's attention. It is in session at this time.

    There are 4 oil-by-rail bills in the works right now.

    1. Research has shown that Bakken crude has a different chemical makeup that makes it more volatile, so the first requirement is that oil must be thoroughly tested to determine exactly what is in it and that information must be posted on each tanker car and posted on the manifest (or whatever it's called for trains) so that local firefighters in every community along the tracks knows what they are dealing with.

    2. The MN legislature is authorizing spending to train fire departments along the rail line how to fight crude oil fires and buy necessary equipment.

    3. Oil trains on MN tracks must be using the newer, stronger tank cars like Mile reffered to.

    4. Trains must observe a 45 mph speed limit on certain parts of the track. Those parts will be designated and signed. They will be mostly curves and urban areas, places with a higher likelihood of derailment or concentrations of population.

    All of those actions to take care of the state's citizens are going to cost money. The railroads will pay for their own cars, but MN will be paying for the firefighting expenses. Still, that's what states do to keep citizens safe.

    There are two pipelines going through northern MN to a terminal at Superior, Wisconsin, right next to Duluth, MN. Last year there were 2 sizable oil spills in MN, both from trains, both in rural areas. One was 12,000 gallons, the other 30,000.

    Does that information make it look like rail transport for crude oil is dangerous? We won't have evidence of the efficacy of MN's new laws for at least one year. On the other hand, what is the cost of a pipeline spill? I'm thinking that the amount of oil spilled is generally much more than the derailments.

    The Arkansas pipeline spill, 2013, lost 950 tons; ND spill last September was 2,800 tons; Yellowstone River, 2011, 140 tons.

    Somewhere in the etherworld there is probably a study that makes better comparisons than I just did. Nonetheless, it appears that neither method of transportation comes without big risks. Is the question, which one is not as bad? Or is it, let's hurry to get green resources on line so we can stop transporting oil c

  34. Jerry 2014.03.03

    Geesh, there you go Deb with the facts. Bravo for Minnesota and thinking outside of the box, wish we had some thinkers here in our legislature instead of stinkers. I think that if the trains run on the rules of right of way, there should be minimal problems. If there has to be a spill, I would as soon see a couple of cars with problems as opposed to an entire ecosystem destroyed.

  35. Bill Dithmer 2014.03.03

    Larry, no twitter account. It's hard enough for me to keep up here with my eye site so I have to pick the things I bitch about.

    The Blindman

  36. grudznick 2014.03.03

    Trains are dangerous, loud and obnoxious. They should have a pipeline through Minnesota for all that super-lethal Baakan oil.

  37. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.03.03

    Grudz, read more closely. I said there are TWO pipelines running through MN. And it is a fact, proven through chemical analysis, that crude coming from ND shale formation is more combustible than the light, sweet, crude that has historically comprised crude oil drilled in the US.

    BTW, Alberta crude is very similar to that coming from the Bakken.

  38. grudznick 2014.03.03

    Ms. Geelsdottir/

    Oh, I see. My bad. Sometimes the long rambling posts confuse me. That's why me and Larry are so tight.

  39. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.03.03

    Grudz, if you find that clear, organized, factual posts are confusing, you might check out Khan Academy for online, free, remedial help. It's a good help. Seriously.

    Or was it just that you are miffed because you didn't like what I said so you took a cheap shot at me?

  40. mike from iowa 2014.03.04

    They,asked Deb how she knew
    Her long posts are true.
    She,of course replied,somewhere deep inside,
    Facts can't be denied.

    Excellent job,Ms Deb. Tar sands bitumen,like the Red River should flow NORTH and destroy Canada's pristine wilderness,not American soil.
    Thanks to the Platters for my hijacking their classic music.

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