Obama tries to have it both ways on Keystone pipeline


During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised hope and change. Based on his speech Thursday in Cushing, Oklahoma, it seems that he’s hoping voters won’t notice as he changes his positions with the political winds. A few months ago, in the face of environmentalist opposition, the president refused to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada to refineries in Texas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma on Thursday, he said that our problem is not oil and gas supplies, but a shortage of the pipeline capacity necessary to move these supplies to where we need them. He claimed to have approved new pipelines all over the country and announced that building the southern portion of the Keystone pipeline is now a priority for the administration.

The president knows that people are concerned about the steadily rising price of gasoline. He knows that building Keystone will create thousands of jobs. He knows that drilling for oil and gas in this country will create thousands more jobs. And he knows that there are people, including Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who think the price of gas is not high enough and others who believe we must rapidly substitute “green” energy for fossil fuels.

But not to worry, says the president. “We don’t have to choose between [energy and environment], we can do both.” What is one to say about this transparent effort to be all things to all people?

For starters, Obama’s announcement that the southern portion of the Keystone pipeline is now an administration priority is like announcing that my holiday in Hawaii next week is a priority for the president. I’m going whether or not it’s a priority for the president. The builders of the Keystone pipeline have already announced that they plan to proceed with the southern portion. They already have all of the permits they need. They have the financing to build it. There is nothing the president could do to stop it even if he wanted to.

So why does he say things like that?

I fear that he talks as if he is running every aspect of American life because he thinks that he has the authority, wisdom and mandate to do so. The essence of his political message is that he will make our lives better — that he will solve our problems and deliver good health, prosperity and justice. He lacks humility and, more ominously, he lacks an appreciation of the constitutional limits of his authority. And this from a self-described constitutional law professor.

His pipeline balancing act will truly test his political talents. After his Oklahoma speech, it is safe to assume that the oil and gas industry folks are happier. But Bill McKibben of 350.org is mad as hell. 350.org is the group that organized thousands of people to encircle the White House in protest of the Keystone project, and McKibben is their leader. A few hours after his Oklahoma speech, Obama was greeted by 350.org protesters in Columbus, Ohio.

For McKibben, it’s not about the environmental damage that a pipeline might do along its route. Rather it’s about climate change and the use, not transportation, of fossil fuels. In an email yesterday McKibben sought to rally his troops by pointing out that in his speech “President Obama didn’t connect the dots between fossil fuel extraction, climate change, and the extreme weather that has reshaped so much of the American landscape this past year.” He went on to paint a grim picture of floods, drought and storms killing people and destroying communities, all because of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

So the dozens of pipelines the president takes credit for surely offend McKibben and his supporters. And the oil and gas industry folks surely understand that Obama’s making the southern portion of Keystone a priority is irrelevant to the completion of that project. Yet Obama seems to think he can keep both interests happy by insisting that he is in charge and saying we can have our cake and eat it too — that he can meet the political challenge by cutting the pipeline in half.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.

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