Foreign Policy: Who Prevails In Pipeline Politics?

Partner content from Foreign Policy

A protester uses a megaphone to shout slogans in front of the White House on Aug. 26, 2011. Demonstrators protested against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project which, if approved, would run from Alberta, Canada to Texas through environmentally sensitive areas. i i

hide captionA protester uses a megaphone to shout slogans in front of the White House on Aug. 26, 2011. Demonstrators protested against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project which, if approved, would run from Alberta, Canada to Texas through environmentally sensitive areas.

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
A protester uses a megaphone to shout slogans in front of the White House on Aug. 26, 2011. Demonstrators protested against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project which, if approved, would run from Alberta, Canada to Texas through environmentally sensitive areas.

A protester uses a megaphone to shout slogans in front of the White House on Aug. 26, 2011. Demonstrators protested against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project which, if approved, would run from Alberta, Canada to Texas through environmentally sensitive areas.

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Author Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and the author of "The Oil and the Glory."

In and around Russia, pipeline politics means raw power — who will exercise influence from Eastern Europe across to the steppes of Kazakhstan. In the United States, it's hardly more subtle: If companies and the Obama administration can navigate no-less-labyrinthine politics, the nation can more comfortably find its way in the Middle East. This lessened fear of lost supplies would coincide with a larger, steady source of both domestic crude, plus Saudi-size reservoirs across the Americas.

U.S.-style pipeline politics center on the proposed 1,600-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would dedicate some 1.1 million barrels a day of Canadian oil to the United States and simultaneously unleash 46 million barrels of oil chronically bottled up as storage in a tiny Oklahoma city. Last Friday, the State Department issued a long-awaited opinion that Alberta oil sands pose no inordinate ecological risk, setting in motion a permitting process that could end up with the construction of the pipeline.

As with the cacophony that accompanies the Russian variety, Keystone has seen no quiet.

Environmentalists, uncomfortable with fossil fuels — this blog has called this group the "no no no chorus" — are angry about the State Department opinion. The National Resources Defense Council, a lobbying group, says the decision is at best premature. Earth Justice, a Washington-based group of green lawyers, describes its various legal maneuvers to head off the pipeline. Friends of the Earth says President Barack Obama is jeopardizing his reelection. Salon's Jefferson Morley compares all this anti-pipelinism (pictured above, activists arrested in front of the White House) to anti-apartheid protesters of the 1980s.

On the other extreme of the Keystone Pipeline Show, we have an industry stampede to get the sands to the United States — now! If not sooner! The American Petroleum Institute says the issue is not the environment but jobs. Senior House Republican Fred Upton says that the Obama administration must therefore take the next step and actually approve the pipeline — with "immediate action," reports Ben Geman at the Hill. As with the politics of the American left, the U.S. spokesman-of-the-right, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, says that in failing to roll out the bulldozers instantly, the Obama administration is yet again displaying that its "political indecision and bureaucratic delay contribute to the sickly economy we have today."

As suggested above, the truth is a bit less absolutist on both sides. The Alberta government and the companies working there have done much to reduce the carbon footprint of the sands and drive the process underground so as to eradicate the use of highly toxic aboveground ponds. The Canadians have attacked another key element of successful resource extraction, which is reducing the secrecy that often surrounds oil and makes the public suspicious.

As for the industry, this chest-out, gung-ho stuff was fine and dandy in the 1940s, but does not fly as well today. Jobs? One would like to see convincing data that tens of thousands of men and women end up working full time on this line. There will be work, but we need to tamp down the hype.

One sensible voice is Bryan Walsh of Time magazine. Walsh writes:

"It's always seemed to me that we should be focusing on reducing our demand and directly developing competitive alternatives, rather than trying to shut down new supply — at least when it comes to oil, for which there is still no effective and economical alternative."

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