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Why Won’t Keystone XL Die?

Congress is trying to force approval of the pipeline—again.

Yesterday, for what seems like the zillionth time, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would force federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The House has tried this tactic at least once before, unsuccessfully. It’s a not-so-distant cousin of the one Congressional Republicans used to force President Obama to decide one way or the other on the pipeline permit earlier this year. The White House has indicated that the president would veto the bill—which would also continue transportation funding—if it contained a provision to rubber-stamp Keystone XL.


When the Obama administration rejected TransCanada’s permit application for Keystone XL back in January, that should have been the last anyone heard about the pipeline until the company submitted a new application for a new route. Instead, every few weeks, the issue has cropped up again and again. Why won’t the pipeline just go away already? A few reasons:

It’s an election year, and gas prices are high. Republicans in Congress keep raising the specter of Keystone XL because every time they do, they can goad the president into rejecting it all over again. Those rejections feed into political talking points: President Obama doesn’t care about creating jobs in America. President Obama doesn’t care about high gas prices. It doesn’t matter that the pipeline’s potential as a job creator has been overblown and pumping more oil from Canada to Texas won’t cut gas prices. Republicans candidates have made the argument that energy development and Keystone XL mean jobs, and they’re sticking with it.

President Obama is guilty of drawing these specious connections too. While he has pointed out that more drilling won’t drop prices, he has also ordered that the southern portion of the pipeline be approved with all due haste. Gas prices are high, after all, and even as he acknowledges he can’t really change that, he has to do something.

Nebraska politicians are on board with the new route. When climate advocates first started fighting against Keystone XL, they emphasized the huge amounts of carbon that lay at one end of the pipeline, in Canada’s tar sands. But that’s not why the Obama administration rejected the pipeline’s permit—its primary concern was the pipeline’s route through Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Ogallala Aquifer.

TransCanada was already working on a new route when Congress pushed the administration to decide one way or another on the permit application. Although the State Department rejected that application, the company is at work on a new one, featuring the updated route. Politicians in Nebraska—including the state’s Republican governor—had expressed reservations about the old route, but they’re so supportive of the new one that last week they passed a bill to speed up environmental approvals.

Oil companies are depending on the pipeline. On the coast of Texas and Louisiana, oil companies have already invested in refineries to process the oil that Keystone XL is supposed to bring down. In Port Arthur, for instance, Motiva—a joint project of Shell and Aramco—has sunk billions of dollars into expanding a refinery to process more than 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Operating at capacity would make it the largest refinery in the country.

These investments don’t guarantee that Keystone XL will be built. But they do give oil companies that much more of an incentive to push and pull at politicians until the approval goes through. Last year, petroleum products were the country’s largest export, and for some in Washington, that’s enough to justify dredging up Keystone XL until it becomes reality.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user NOAA's National Ocean Service

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