Thursday, October 11, 2012

An 'inelegant' debate

Talk about "inelegant" phrasing.

The term that defenders of Mitt Romney et al have used to explain the Republican's tone-deaf and often dismissive statements applies ten fold to what Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce told Politico reporter Andrew Restuccia about the uber-controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

This is what she  said:

“Clearly, if the president were to go forward and approve the project even after review has shown that it’s damaging to the environment  ... we’ll call a spade a spade.

A spade, huh? Ouch. 

The story is about how green groups are acknowledging that their supposed win in January, when the Obama administration did not approve the pipeline, won't amount to much when he almost assuredly goes ahead and approves it early next year (assuming he is re-elected). This seems like a foregone conclusion to me. 

The only reason Obama denied the original application was because Republicans forced his hand with a provision in an otherwise unrelated highway bill saying that he had to decide within 60 days whether to grant a permit for the pipeline. When forced, he said 60 days was not enough time to finish a review of the environmental impact of the pipeline, and denied the the application. 

This was an unintended political gift for Obama because it allowed him to burnish his green credentials and fire up a large portion of his base. In his heart of hearts, I think he knows the pipeline is an inevitability, and to fight it would give his opponents easy fodder to attack him on issues like jobs and the economy, where he has proven vulnerable. 

The main argument against the pipeline is that it will speed up development of Canada's vast and filthy oil sands, which is one of the biggest deposits of oil in the world. There are all kinds of environmental concerns associated with the oil sands, most of them valid. Keystone opponents say the US should reject the pipeline and the oil it brings so as not to promote oil-sands development. The problem is that the Canadians will not stop producing the stuff either way, and the oil will eventually have to go somewhere. So why not bring it here? Not accepting it on principle is not a very salient argument against it because, economically, it's a bit naive. Furthermore, we already import almost a quarter of our total oil from Canada (2.7 million barrels per day last year, according to EIA), and a big chunk of that is from the oil sands. Keystone would allow more Canadian oil to flow to the US, it's true. But so much already does.

I'm pretty ambivalent on the whole thing. I'm not wild about the oil sands in general, but I also know that there is no stopping their exploitation, and the US will need that oil no matter what. Whoever the next president is will approve the pipeline, I think that's a given. Obama has been able to parlay the issue into a political victory, and when he (seemingly) reverses course, well, apparently he will be called a "spade" for it. Nothing elegant about that.

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