Parsing Obama on Keystone (or trying to)


    So what exactly does President Obama think about the controversial Keystone pipeline? You could spend hours parsing his most recent words, and never figure it out.

    During his long-awaited climate change speech last Tuesday, he briefly referenced the long-in-limbo oil project, which, if approved by the administration, would ship tar sands oil from Canada to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. His remarks were a surprise. The politics of Keystone have long been fierce – the oil industry, Teamsters, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are vocally in favor; environmentalists and the liberal Democratic base are vocally opposed – and Obama has been averse to stirring the pot.

    Well, now he has finally stirred it – but with a ladle the size of a toothpick. The reaction, among Keystone partisans, has either been “Huh?” or “Hey, he seems to agree with us.”

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Prominent politicians – Franklin D. Roosevelt was a classic example – often manage disputes by crafting phrases that seem to mollify both sides. FDR was famous (or infamous) for leaving the impression that he agreed with whoever was lobbying him. Many historians cite this as proof of his shrewdness; many of his contemporaries critics said he was instinctively deceptive. Obama, on the Keystone issue, seems to be pulling an FDR. Is he being shrewd or deceptive? Take your pick.

    A “death knell” or not

    To help you decide, let’s look at what he actually said last week, in a speech passage that got little news play on a big Supreme Court day:

    Our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil. And, by the way, it’s certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline. Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.

    But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

    According to one interpretation, it appears that Obama is poised to kill Keystone. He basically said he won’t green light a project that has a big carbon footprint, one that could “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Which certainly seems to be the case here, because Canada’s tar sands oil is chemically-treated goo that eats through pipes and leaks into the water.

    A top Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Star, read Obama’s passage that way: “It sounded, note for note, like the death knell of Canada’s Keystone XL pipeline.” An editorial writer on the Bloomberg News website said, “This is more negative than Obama has ever been about Keystone.” The Los Angeles Times reported: “The announcement on Keystone would give Obama a reason to block (the) pipeline project.” And a major environmental group, the National Resources Defense Council, exulted: “President Obama made it clear that he won’t green light a tar sands pipeline that means more climate chaos.”

    But hang on, there’s another interpretation. The Forbes business news website looked at those same Obama remarks and concluded: “Any rational parsing of his words can only suggest that the pipeline will be approved after all.” Why’s that? Because, as the Politico website contended, Obama’s words “set the groundwork for the president to later say he’d successfully demanded the highest environmental safeguards for the pipeline, if – as is widely expected – he eventually gives it a green light.”

    That interpretation makes sense. After all, he never defined “significantly exacerbate.” That loophole is big enough for a fleet of oil tankers. He left himself ample wiggle room to say yes. (Or, technically speaking, for the State Department to say yes.) He seems willing to accept some amount of carbon pollution; he never said anything in his speech passage about zero tolerance.

    Mainstream support

    And the Keystone remarks need to be viewed in the context of his overall speech, which was mostly about his imminent executive actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions at existing coal plants. He appears (I think) to be positioning himself for some policy tradeoffs that would semi-satisfy both sides: Business and industry lobbyists angered by his greenhouse gas rules might be partly mollified if they get Keystone. Environmentalists angered by his decision to green-light Keystone might cut him some slack because he’s  tackling greenhouse gases.

    Moreover, he’d be on solid ground politically if he OKs the pipeline; on this issue, his liberal base is outside the mainstream. The nonpartisan Pew poll reported in April that 66 percent of Americans want the pipeline – including 70 percent of swing-voting independents, 60 percent of young people aged 18 to 29, and even 54 percent of all Democrats. The only folks who are down on the pipeline (only 42 percent support) are the liberal Democrats. And lest we forget, Obama’s former campaign arm – now known as Organizing for Action – has been reportedly working behind the scenes to dampen liberal grassroots ire against the pipeline.

    So maybe his remarks, properly parsed, point to a yes. Or maybe he was readyng us for a finding of significant exacerbation (citing evidence like this). Or maybe, as is often the case with politicians, he was merely blurring the line between clarity and opacity.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1


    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal