Strong thinking from Obama on Keystone

Since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, liberals have rarely stood firm on key issues. Part of it is their own timidity; part of it is because Republicans have been very effective in sandbagging and bullying liberals.

There is considerable talk about the polarization between Republicans and Democrats. Anyone who has been watching the Republican presidential debates can clearly see that Republicans shy away from shades of grey and see almost every issue as one of black or white.

President Obama has been criticized for a lack of firmness in advocating certain issues. But what might have been interpreted as capitulation on his part seems to be taking on a much more positive tone now.

This is because one of the key tenets of the progressive philosophy is to engage in critical thinking. By definition progressives are frequently reluctant to advocate simplistic answers. Their preference is to think issues through; even at the cost of procrastination.

Regrettably, there are also times when progressives seem to lock themselves into a position and polarize the debate. Such might be the case for some progressives with regard to the proposed Keystone Pipeline that would run from Alberta south to Texas with a spur going as far east as Illinois. It would not be an ordinary oil pipeline. It would carry a type of crude oil that is unique to Canada; petroleum that actually comes from what is known as oil sands. No other pipeline has ever carried crude oil sands through pipes for as long a distance as would be the case with Keystone.

Various political groups have positioned themselves at two extremes on this issue. Those who feel that the United States desperately needs carbon-based energy from North America think that the Keystone Pipeline provides an unprecedented opportunity for American energy independence. However, others who have serious concerns about environmental issues. The pipeline would run close to water aquifers, particularly in Nebraska. An underground fracture of the pipeline runs the risk of severely polluting drinking water for humans and animals as well as making huge expanses of land above it toxic. The haunting image of the B.P. Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Caribbean in April, 2010 gives anyone with environmental concerns cause to advocate caution with regard to Keystone.

In December, 2011, Keystone became mired in a Congressional battle regarding extending the payroll tax reduction of 2011 into 2012. In the true spirit of kicking the can down the road, Republicans agreed to a two month extension of the reduction so long as President Obama would make a clear recommendation on Keystone by the end of February. Most people felt that this would only mean that the pattern of Congressional gridlock would continue well into the Spring and beyond.

However, on January 18, 2012, President Obama announced that he was neither ready to approve or reject the Keystone Pipeline. Instead he wanted his administration to further study the issues. His measured response received vitriolic opposition from a number of groups. First, Republicans as a group objected because essentially anything that Barack Obama does they oppose. Second, petroleum interests objected because the oil sand from Canada represents potentially huge profits to them. Third, labor unions were up in arms because it has been estimated that constructing the pipeline could create as many as 20,000 jobs during the construction phase. American workers are a key part of President Obama’s constituency; their disappointment or even anger with his decision represents considerable political risk.

Regardless of what decision the president took, he was going to receive political heat. In a sense, that was liberating. There was no “win-win” position on Keystone; only “win-lose.” If that’s the case, then the president had the freedom to make as wise a decision as possible because whatever his ultimate decision was, he would receive considerable criticism from large interest groups.

The additional research that will be done on Keystone beyond February, 2012 is not just an esoteric exercise in crunching numbers for the sake of doing so and creating new mounds of paper. It’s quite possible that the additional study will result have enormous environmental benefits, ones that may be as invisible as they are significant. If as a result of the additional research the pipelines operates for forty years or so without any environmental mishap, we will never know what might have happened had insufficient research been done. Whenever the oil sand in Canada runs dry, if the heavy sludge-like material will have flowed without incident, then President Obama’s decision will have been extremely wise.

Most environmental groups oppose the Keystone project, or at least agree that further study is needed. The elephant in the room is why can’t the U.S. put Keystone-type resources into renewable energy such as solar panels and windmills. The answer to this question is not simple and that is why President Obama deserves credit. Instead of taking a lockstep position as his Republican opponents would, he has chosen to be thoughtful and focus on sound policy. Yes, he has political gains and losses at stake. But he has far greater responsibility for his actions than his opponents do. Whatever the ultimate decision is on the Keystone Pipeline, President Obama deserves credit for taking a deliberate approach in dealing with it. That in itself puts him far ahead of his Republican opponents.