Rupert Cornwell: There's trouble in the pipeline for Obama

Out of America: A plan to import tar-sand oil from Canada will bring jobs and energy security, but environmentalists say the president must block it

Share
Related Topics

At first glance, it's what the Americans call a no-brainer, a decision so obvious it doesn't require an instant's thought. You are the world's biggest importer of oil, spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year to prop up unstable or downright hostile countries that happen to produce the precious stuff. Then your next-door neighbour, a proven friend and your biggest trading partner, offers to build a pipeline to provide you more of its own oil. The deal means greater energy security, not to mention thousands of new jobs, a year before you face a tricky re-election campaign in which high unemployment is likely to be the make-or-break issue. Truly, a no-brainer.

Except it hasn't worked out that way. By the end of the year, the Obama administration is supposed to give final approval for the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, that would carry up to a million barrels a day of oil, some 10 per cent of US import needs, from Canada to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. The decision not only seems certain to split the Democratic Party, but it will also say a great deal about the core beliefs of a president who stands for so much – but, it often seems, for nothing very passionately.

For the oil that would flow through Keystone XL is not just any oil. It comes from the Alberta tar sands, which contain economically recoverable reserves equal at least to those of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, production from this super-heavy bitumen generates three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil.

For the Republican candidates jostling to oppose Mr Obama next November, the latter consideration, of course, hardly applies. Climate change, they believe, has nothing to do with humans, while the venture is just the sort of bold private-sector investment that creates jobs and revitalises the economy: government should get out of the way and give business its head. Indeed, listen to Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and one of the frontrunners for the nomination, and you would imagine that America's every woe could be solved by an oil derrick in everyone's back garden.

For Democrats, however, Keystone XL is the wedge issue from hell. It pits two of Mr Obama's key constituencies against each other. On one side are the unions, a major source of Democratic funding and a key grassroots organising force for the party, who naturally are unequivocally in favour of the pipeline because of the estimated 20,000 jobs it will generate.

On the other, however, stand environmentalists from the liberal wing of the party that most fervently backed Mr Obama in 2008, and whose enthusiasm will be sorely needed if he is to secure a second term. But environmentalists' faith was heavily dented by the President's decision in September to halt plans to impose more stringent clean-air standards – announced on 2 September, the very same day the government reported that no new jobs were created by the economy in the month of August.

A go-ahead for the pipeline would be portrayed by liberals as more evidence that, when push comes to shove, Barack Obama will yield to corporate clout. In recent days, the divisions have only deepened. More than 20 Democratic congressmen have written to the President urging him to support the scheme, but Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and the most powerful Democrat on Capitol Hill, warned that anything was preferable to increasing dependence on "unsustainable supplies of dirty and polluting oil".

Not so long ago, everything seemed plain sailing for Keystone XL. Because the pipeline crossed an international border, it fell to the State Department to judge its environmental impact. The Canadian government lobbied heavily for the project, and in November 2010, with memories of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill fresh, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State indicated that she was "inclined" to grant a permit. It was, she said, "a choice between "dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada".

Then came the counter-attack, spurred in part by the verdict of the federal government's own Environmental Protection Agency that the State Department's review process was "inadequate". Scientists and environmental groups, even farmers in South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, made common cause – the former warning that increased production from the tar sands would render futile all efforts to hold back climate change, the latter fearful that a pipeline leak could contaminate the shallow Ogallala aquifer on which the Great Plains depend for irrigation and drinking water.

By August, demonstrations were taking place outside the White House, and Hollywood was getting into the act. The crude from Alberta was " the dirtiest oil on the planet", Robert Redford declared, as he urged Mr Obama to "stand up for the future you know we deserve ... and say 'no' to the Keystone XL". Some noted that in 2007, none other than George W Bush had signed a law banning the government from buying fuel with a higher carbon footprint than ordinary oil. If tar-sand oil was too much even for the "Toxic Texan", surely it was too much for Barack Obama?

There, for now, matters stand. The White House urges liberals not to lose faith, pleading with them to consider what evils might be visited upon the environment if a Republican won in 2012. The official mantra remains that the US must somehow end its addiction to oil, by switching to renewables and other "green" sources of energy.

But the much-publicised bankruptcy this summer of Solyndra, a solar panel company that had received $535m in federal loans, tells another story. The affair is not the political graft scandal some Republicans suggest, rather a well-meaning investment that failed. But the story of Solyndra only underlines how hard it will be to find a speedy alternative to oil.

In the short term, however, politicians must create an economy that generates jobs and wins them elections. And the two goals may well be irreconcilable. "To govern is to choose among disadvantages," Charles de Gaulle once said. Barack Obama knows exactly what he meant.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?