Keystone Cave? No, Keystone Kabuki

IMAG0190-1-1by RL Miller, cross-posted from Daily Kos

The payroll tax cut extension deal, approved by the Senate 89-10 Saturday morning, included a requirement that the State Department act on the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days.

Talking Points Memo labels it a GOP win on Keystone, and Politico reports: Greens call out Keystone XL deal. However, David Dayen at Firedoglake – a site not normally known for reflexive defense of Democrats’ negotiating tactics – sees it differently: Republicans demand to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.

A careful analysis shows that the in all likelihood the deal will simply allow both sides to generate hot-button quotes come election 2012. At worst, it’s no more than Kabuki theater. At best, it gives President Obama a chance to affirm his commitment to environmental and climate issues, and reject the pipeline completely.

1. The deal: Congress can require the State Department to make a decision, but can’t tell the State Department what to decide.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) is taking credit for a bill he introduced, S.1932, to be incorporated into the deal. The bill, as currently written, requires the State Department to make a decision on the pipeline within 60 days. The bill does not require the State Department to make any particular decision, yes or no, only that it make a decision within 60 days.

The State Department has already said that no arbitrary deadlines can be set for its decision:

“Should Congress impose an arbitrary deadline for the permit decision … the Department would be unable to make a determination to issue a permit for this project,” the Department said in a statement.

The State Department’s official statement reiterates an “early 2013” timetable.Got that? The Senate deal requires the State Department to make a fast decision, and the State Department has already said that its fast decision would be a “no.” Tweets from @dpfeiffer44 emphasize:

How will the GOP explain to their members that their bill doesnt force the President to approve Keystone, it essentially kills it?

Lots of incorrect reporting out there today that says the House Payroll bill forces approval of the Keystone pipeline, that is not true

The House bill simply shortens the review process in a way that virtually guarantees that the pipeline will NOT be approved

Republicans presumably know all this – the State Department promised on December 12 to say no to an expedited decision on Keystone XL, and the payroll tax deal was made on December 16. So why go through this? Either they have faith in the caveats (discussed below), or they want the ability to score political points with voters more than they want the pipeline itself. In other words, they’re likely playing Kabuki theater, manufacturing an excuse to scream about the “job killing” Obama administration.

2. The caveats

First, Obama or the State Department could simply about-face: declare that enough information has been collected and approve the pipeline within 60 days. It wouldn’t be the first time the President has overruled his own agency’s recommendations on an environmental issue.

For what it’s worth, Ed Henry senses that the White House has already sustained whatever damage it would sustain from rejecting the pipeline, and is poised to turn it down:

sense i’m getting from WH — & i stress just a sense — POTUS leaning toward BLOCKING Keystone cause insiders think he already took hit

what i mean: WH thinks POTUS already took hit for allegedly “killing Keystone”/calculation is won’t be big deal to really kill it 60 days

In other words, the White House may have already made a political calculation that it could safely turn down the pipeline without damaging President Obama’s reelection campaign.

I’ve looked at a second caveat. The State Department’s original announcement of delay listed the factors it would weigh: “whether the proposed pipeline was in the national interest, considering all of the relevant issues together. Among the relevant issues that would be considered are environmental concerns (including climate change), energy security, economic impacts, and foreign policy.” Section 3 of Senator Lugar’s bill requires the President to either grant the pipeline permit if he determines that it’s in the national interest, or report to Congress why not, including “consideration of economic, employment, energy security, foreign policy, trade, and environmental factors.” That’s not quite the same list – Lugar adds employment and trade, and omits climate. Lugar’s bill might require approval. However, Lugar’s bill isn’t so different from the State Department factors; the employment aspect of Keystone XL is hotly disputed, and trade shouldn’t be a make-or-break point. In short, the language of S.1932 does not create a trap for unwary Democrats.

3. The advantages for Democrats

Why should Republicans get all the talking points? Democrats should use this episode to generate some Kabuki theater moments of their own. The GOP has risked a tax hike on millions of Americans just to prove, once again, that the party is owned lock, stock, and barrel by Big Oil. By contrast, President Obama will demonstrate to the world that he rejects dirty tar sands oil when he rejects the pipeline. Far from being a “cave” on the pipeline, the vote gives the President a chance to reject it entirely.

— RL Miller is an attorney and environment blogger with Climate Hawks. This piece was originally published at Daily Kos and was reprinted with permission by the author.

19 Responses to Keystone Cave? No, Keystone Kabuki

  1. Robert Nagle says:

    This deal stems from Republican overconfidence that a rejection of XL will alienate voters. But I just don’t see that voters will care very much about this — especially in states up for grabs. If anything, it will make oil people angry with Republicans for not anticipating that Obama would have no choice but to reject the application. It makes Republicans look stupid, and even Republicans must recognize that at the end of the day that they would be trading something for nothing.

  2. john atcheson says:

    This exists as an issue because the president attempted to punt and put off the XL decision until after the election, rather than trying to turn it into a teachable moment.

    That doesn’t inspire confidence in the president making the right call, or in the Dems ability to turn this into a political plus.

  3. Jeff H says:

    What concerns me is that even OUR OWN discussions of this issue increasingly defer to the conventional terminologies, “framings”, and political games (and ultimately seem to bless those as the right way to look at things) and draw us further and further away from being honest, scientifically robust, firm, clear, and humane about what ought to be done on the basis of climate change considerations alone. This thing (Keystone XL) should be rejected because of what Jim Hansen and many others have said, period. Yet now we are talking about the notion that the Repubs will have forced a ‘No’ by setting an arbitrary deadline for a decision. It’s fine, here, to consider matters from all angles, and it’s important to think tactically and not be blindsided. But in explaining to the public why he doesn’t approve Keystone XL (if he doesn’t), the President should be clear, credible, confident, and courageous, and not muddy things or make excuses. If the President says or implies that the route was the real issue, or that his hand was forced because of the 60-day deadline, that will (once again) undermine efforts to provide the public with an increasingly clear understanding of the importance of climate change. Can we not speak truthfully in this country?

    Be Well,


  4. Leif says:

    I am forever hopeful that even the Democrats and President are capable of learning. The President has drifted toward the Dark Side but it is up to “we the people” to join hands and form a chain for him to reach out to. Even Gandhi once said, “I must quickly hurry to the head of the crowd so that I can lead my people.” I, for one am prepared to march with the president for betterment of mankind and Earth’s life support systems. However, I will not follow him to the “Dark Side.” That is my story and I am sticking to it.

  5. The KXL pipeline is just the latest MacGuffin, a shiny object to distract the voters from the primary action (heard anything about ANWR lately?).

    The main (bi-partisan) intention is continued undermining of Social Security by institutionalizing the payroll tax “holiday”.

  6. MarkfromLexington says:

    This whole discussion may be moot – given that Boehner now says that the House will no longer approve the bill at all.

  7. FedUpWithDenial says:

    If I were the President, I’d kill the Keystone XL Pipeline immediately, without waiting for any resolution of the payroll tax extension issue now in Congress, unless there were some compelling reason(s) to put off the kill decision until a later date.

    And when I explained the reasons for this decision in my next public appearance, I’d highlight the grave long-term risks to the climate, public health, and the environment of allowing the pipeline to be built (not neglecting to cite Hansen’s warning that full exploitation of the tar sands deposits would be “essentially game over for the climate”), noting also that few American jobs would be created by the project and that most of the refined tar sands oil would be exported to other countries in any case.

    I’d add that a vastly greater number of American jobs would be created by “going green” and investing in full-scale deployment of solar and wind energy projects here in the United States, starting ASAP.

    Killing the pipeline immediately rather than putting off the decision until some later date (viz. within 60 days or until early 2013) would have the additional virtues of demonstrating firm Presidential resolve on an important issue (thus helping to unify the President’s base as we head into an election year), kicking the eminently deserving a$$es of the Canadian leadership, and suppressing further GOP attempts at play politics on this and similar issues – reminding the tea party faithful that the President bats last.

    If this President would, just this once, hit one completely out of the ball park it would be a great help to the Country and the world.

    Finally, it’s important for everybody everywhere to understand that “game over for the climate” is Game Over, period – game over for our capacity to feed ourselves, game over for our capacity to maintain stable societies, game over for civilization, game over for life as we know it. There are many compelling reasons to reject the XL pipeline, but none is so compelling as the climatic one, based upon extensive paleoclimatic and other evidence that the 390+ ppm CO2 already in the atmosphere is too high and that continuation of business as usual for even just a few more years risks pushing the climate system past tipping points that would fatally destabilize it, thus crashing the entire system on our heads.

  8. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Apparently not, though many of us are now trying.

    It’s sort of like talking about the reality of the spherical Earth in a flat-Earth society. This raises a lot more than just eyebrows, you know.

  9. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Boehner is probably the #1 troublemaker now in Congress. The President should consider signing a National Security Directive, with or without a declaration of emergency authority, authorizing Boehner’s arrest on grounds of having undermined the Republic and placed the future of the Nation at risk by repeatedly blocking the essential business of government. How long are we going to tolerate the stonewalling and intransigence of self-serving GOP politicians, however ostensibly ideologically-driven, who line their pockets with oil money and the gold of Wall Street bankers to the exclusion of the interests of the other 99% of us?

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Does ‘teachable moment’ mean ‘Setting a good example by acting in a rational and moral fashion, while explaining why it is so’? If so, why, I wonder, did Obama not do so? The neatest correct answer gets a gold star.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The troglodytes win whenever you play in their playground. You cannot seek a ‘middle way’ with them, because they are totalitarians who (literally in many cases) see environmentalists and the Left as the spawn of Satan. They will destroy the planet out of sheer spite, to piss of those who love it. As Ronnie Raygun said, as he allowed the clear-felling of groves of Sequoia -‘You seen one redwood, you seen ’em all’.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’re quite right, Brian-Social Security has a bi-partisan contract out in it. However the real ‘main game’ is human survival on this planet, which these thanatocrats seem not to to have any interest in whatsoever.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Plainly, fed., you are not Barack Obama. You appear to have a spine, for starters, oh, and that useless appendage, a moral conscience. Hand yourself into the authorities at once!

  14. thanatocrats — very apt description of our current form of government (though I admit I had to look up Thanatos)

  15. R Shamel says:

    Hear, hear! Wise words. All in favor?

  16. R Shamel says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Kudos!

  17. R Shamel says:

    Above speaking to ‘FUWD,’ but you too, Mulga!

  18. Killing the pipeline immediately… nice!

  19. Jake says:

    No, this was a cave, like he frequently caves. And in 60 days he can be expected to cave. Remember how he caved on extending the Bush tax cuts?