Big Oil’s Pipeline Stunt Will Backfire (Updated)

12/22 Update:  Press reports indicate this afternoon that the House GOP will blink on the payroll tax bill and sign off on the version passed by a bi-partisan margin in the Senate.  Of course, we have heard this before, so no telling for sure what will happen until it is on the president’s desk.

The bill heading to the president will likely include the rider that rushes the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  So what does this mean for the pipeline?  Speaker Boehner is trying to satisfy Big Oil’s lobbyists and some of the GOP’s top corporate donors by forcing the president to make a hasty decision, but it will backfire.   I am confident that President Obama will stand up to big oil and reject this dangerous and unnecessary pipeline because it is the right thing to do, and that the American public will support him.  Americans understand that it is wrong to play political games and strip families of our right to protect our land and our clean water from foreign oil companies, because you can’t drink oil.

I asked  Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska and Bill McKibben of, two of the leading fighters to stop this pipeline,  for their reaction today as well. Here is what they wrote me:

Bill McKibben:  “The administration’s promise to deny this permit, if fulfilled, will be one of the rare pieces of good news for the climate in a year which saw America shatter all records for billion-dollar weather disasters. The president campaigned hard in 2008 on trying to slow the climate crisis, and this would be a strong sign he meant what he said.”

Jane Kleeb: “The pipeline is unnecessary and a scam that would export the oil while burdening our families with all the risks.”

 Prior Update: Tweet from White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer (@pfeiffer44):

Tweet from Dan Pfeiffer

Keystone XL Legacy: More Tar Sands Pollution (image courtesy
The good thing about being president is you get the last word. The Obama administration was conducting the necessary environmental analysis before deciding whether to approve the 1,700 mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. But that process has now been short-circuited thanks to a provision forced onto the payroll tax bill as a special favor to oil companies.

As someone who has testified twice this year in Congress against the pipeline, you might think I should be alarmed about Big Oil’s latest stunt to rush the president’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. I’m not. Here’s why it will backfire.

Of course oil companies want to rush approval of the project. The pipeline means more profits– a lot more.  Not just more oil, but higher prices too (a price tag of $4 billion more every year, according to Transcanada’s analysis). The president has the responsibility to determine whether the pipeline is in the “national interest.” If he says “yes,” then Canadian oil company Transcanada will start taking American families to court to take their land under eminent domain laws.  After Nebraskans rebelled against the original pipeline route, Transcanada announced they will pick a new route.  They still haven’t told us where they will build it.  The ill-conceived rider would essentially be a blank check to route the pipeline where they want without federal oversight.

House Speaker John Boehner, who seems to have trouble saying “no” to oil companies on anything, fell in love with the rider. He threatened to torpedo the payroll tax relief bill for American families unless it includes a rider to rush the pipeline decision in 60 days.

Here’s the catch:  The State Department (which is responsible for doing the required assessments of the Canadian pipeline) had already clearly said that a Congressional order to rush the pipeline is a mandate to kill the pipeline.

Here is what the State Department said:

“Should Congress impose an arbitrary deadline for the permit decision, its actions would not only compromise the process, it would prohibit the Department from acting consistently with National Environmental Policy Act requirements by not allowing sufficient time for the development of this information. In the absence of properly completing the process, the Department would be unable to make a determination to issue a permit for this project.”

This makes sense. If there is one thing we learned from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, it is the danger of rushing oversight and trusting oil companies to regulate themselves.  The first Keystone pipeline, which has been in operation for only a year, has already had 14 spillsHow can regulators approve a pipeline when the company building it hasn’t decided where it will be routed, whose land they will grab, and which water supplies they will put in harm’s way? And how can anyone say that highly corrosive tar sands oil is safe to transport in pipelines when Congress this week passed a bill requiring the first-ever study of tar sands pipeline safety?

Rally against tar sands in Washington, DC, October 2011
There’s not much to like about what is going on in Washington. The political games Congress is playing over the pipeline speaks to the grip that oil companies have over our elected officials. But in terms of the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, this story has only one ending:  the rider forces the Obama administration to deny the pipeline permit, and the project will be stopped. Good riddance.

More than 500,000 Americans have already commented against the Keystone XL pipeline. They understand that oil companies don’t build pipelines to change where we get our energy next year or the year after–they build oil pipelines to deepen our addiction for decades to come. We need to set our compass to steer toward cleaner, safer energy sources, not Canadian tar sands, the most toxic and most expensive form of oil on the planet.

Oil companies have plenty of money to spend on the media and politicians to keep up their drumbeat in the coming weeks. Even though we know how this story ends, we don’t intend to let oil companies be the only voices heard on the way there. People who care about the energy future we leave our children and grandchildren now need to mobilize once more.

Update 12/17:  The Obama administration has been confirming to reporters that the payroll tax rider will sink the pipeline. According to a Bloomberg report:

Republican insistence on including a demand to speed a decision on a controversial Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline means it almost certainly will not be built, a senior administration official said. […]

Obama stands by the State Department’s warning on Monday that a Republican effort to limit the pipeline review to 60 days would violate environmental laws and force it to withhold approval, the senior official said. […]

The Democratic president can live with the Keystone clause in the tax deal because it does not mandate that he approve the pipeline, only that he make a decision within 60 days on whether or not to allow construction.

The official said the project would now almost surely be killed because Obama has made clear he will not give the go-ahead without time for an adequate review of the health, safety and environmental risks.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)  is calling the pipeline rider a “Pyrrhic victory” for Republicans.

Donate NowSupport National Wildlife Federation’s work on to stop dirty fuels and the Keystone XL pipeline at our Choose Your Cause website.