The failure of the Senate earlier this month to consider an energy bill likely puts to rest, at least for this year, the prospect of Congressional action mandating approval the Keystone XL pipeline. But President Barack Obama should hardly feel he’s dodged a bullet. Repeated delays in making a decision on Keystone have freshened criticism from both left and right that the president is indecisive to a fault.
At this point it seems clear, however, that Obama will be compelled by political expediency to delay the Keystone decision still further, until after the mid-term elections. By postponing the decision he can avoid suppressing desperately needed November turnout from his liberal base, parts of which have threatened to stay home if he approves the pipeline. Equally, denying the Keystone permit ahead of the mid-terms would further imperil at least five Senate seats — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina — held by endangered moderate Democrats, all running in states Republican nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012. These seats are the key to Democratic hopes of keeping a slim majority in the Senate.
But, now that the Keystone decision will probably come after the mid-terms, Obama is almost certain to approve the pipeline. Why? In a word: Hillary.
If President Obama denies the popular pipeline, which polls consistently show Americans support by more than a two to one margin, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would be saddled with a political nightmare. In the Democratic primary, she would come under withering pressure from big money liberal funders and left of center primary voters to come out against the project, and the issue would also certainly become a rallying cry of candidates to her left, whether Elizabeth Warren or any other. At the same time, if Mrs. Clinton caved to this pressure and signaled she would nix Keystone, she would be on the wrong side of general election voters, handing the Republicans a powerful symbolic issue for November.
If the President approves the Keystone permit after the mid-terms, though, the issue will be effectively defused. The GOP would lose a potent political weapon. Clinton could indicate, that while she has some issues with the pipeline, the matter is moot, since the permit has already been granted. She can also point to two State Department studies that have shown the pipeline is unlikely to markedly increase greenhouse gas emissions, since Canadian oil sands are highly profitably and will be developed in any event. In short, she can finesse the issue far more easily post-approval than post-rejection.
More broadly, the White House should realize that the Keystone XL decision actually affords the president a golden opportunity to educate the American people about what really matters regarding climate change policy, and what doesn’t.
As recent analysis by Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations and other centrist experts has found, stopping Keystone is hardly the key to climate protection. There are many issues, both at home and abroad, that are far more important, and which are now being overshadowed by Keystone.
Internationally, for example, the president has negotiated agreements with President Xi Jinping of China and the G-20 heads of state to support a phase out hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs, a super greenhouse gas, which would avoid the equivalent of three years of global CO2 emissions, preventing 0.5 degree Celsius in warming, at incredibly low cost.
If he can convince India, the last remaining holdout, the president can get HFCs phased out under the Montreal Protocol Treaty for a huge climate win. The contrast with any putative reductions from denying Keystone is stark. And an HFC phase out would address emissions at a global level, which is ultimately what matters for the climate, and reduce warming more quickly than other emissions reductions because HFCs are short-lived in the atmosphere.
Many other critical policies, including regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency due out in draft next month to reduce emissions from existing power plants, could actually be endangered by a Keystone XL denial since they would put the GOP on the warpath, and increase the likelihood of a GOP majority Senate voting to overturn the regulations. Indeed, some Democrats contend Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would rather have the campaign issue than pipeline approval, and so was content to maneuver the Senate into giving up on the energy bill.
In sum, Keystone can be President Obama’s Sister Souljah moment on climate, the chance to talk truth to the left side of his party, even while ultimately helping Democratic electoral prospects.
If Obama wants to cement a Democratic legacy on climate, he needs to be followed in office by a fellow Democrat. It’s that simple. One of the surest ways to reduce that likelihood would be to hand the GOP a hot button issue to use against the Democratic nominee, should it be Clinton, or anyone else. For make no mistake, a GOP president would do everything in his or her power to scuttle EPA regulations and other climate policies.
The sheer irony is typical of American politics these days. To improve climate policy in the long-term, president Obama has to ignore his left-wing critics and approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. Most sensible Democrats will thank him.
Paul Bledsoe is a senior fellow in the energy and society program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He was communications director of the White House Climate Change Task Force from 1998 to 2000.