The Keystone XL Decision: Kicking the Can Down the Road?

Photo by Mose Buchele/StateImpact Texas

William Fisher teaches at UT's Jackson School of Geosciences.

The Obama administration has officially rejected the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a multi-billion dollar project that would take crude 1,700 miles from the oil sands of Canada to refineries in Texas.

StateImpact Texas spoke with William Fisher, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Geosciences, to get a sense of what the decision means. (Read our explainer on the pipeline here.)

“Texas has quite a bit at stake here,” Fisher says. “What’s different now [from last fall, when the Obama administration rejected the pipeline] is that Congress put this two month thing on it. My guess is that this thing will be put off until after the election, at which time Obama or a Republican administration would almost certainly approve it. I guess it’s really just business as usual.”

Fisher, who served in the Reagan and Ford administrations, says that pipeline construction isn’t likely to begin even on the approved legs until the Nebraska piece is in place. For now, Fisher says, the President “can say he’s just waiting on the State Department to do environmental impact study” of the Nebraska leg.

Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney gave a preview of today’s decision using that very reason, saying it’s “it is a fallacy to suggest that the President should sign into law something when there isn’t even an alternate route identified in Nebraska and when the review process is — there was an attempt to short-circuit the review process in a way that does not allow the kind of careful consideration of all the competing criteria here that needs to be done.”

But the Washington Post reports that “the administration will allow TransCanada to reapply after it develops an alternate route through the sensitive habitat of Nebraska’s Sandhills.” The paper writes that TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, is expected to “submit a new route proposal for the Nebraska leg of the pipeline within two weeks.”

So is today’s expected announcement merely a way for the Obama administration to delay approval or denial of the pipeline until after the election? Are they maneuvering around the Congressionally-imposed deadline and kicking the can down the road?

“That’s my judgement,” Fisher says. “This was more of a political ploy by Congress to draw attention to it. If you had it up for a vote, it would carry.”

Fisher says that while most of the environmental groups are opposing the pipeline because they worry it will increase reliance on fossil fuels and mean more carbon emissions, the oil sands of Canada are too much a part of the Canadian economy for the oil not to end up on the market. “They’re going to build another line to Vancouver,’ he says. “It’s gonna be produced, they’re going to to go up to 5 or 6 million barrels a day. And if we don’t do it, it’s total stupidity. But that doesn’t mean that won’t happen — our energy policy is full of a lot of stupidity.”

“In the long term, the pipeline will almost surely be built,” Fisher says, “someway, somehow.”

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