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Sean Higgins: Big Green gets 'militant,' exerts influence over Obama

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In his inaugural address, President Obama said: "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it."

The word "leadership" doesn't exactly describe how his administration has dealt with the Keystone XL pipeline project, though. Thus far, Obama has lacked the courage to take a firm stance one way or the other.

He wants the issue to just go away.

For a year and half now, his administration has adopted one delaying tactic after another regarding a final decision on the proposed project to build a U.S.-Canada oil pipeline from Alberta's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico.

Last year, Obama rejected a permit application, but he didn't kill the project outright either -- holding out the possibility it may be approved later.

His administration did it again last week. A decision had been promised by March, but an anonymous State Department official has now told Reuters a decision will come at "the beginning of summer at the earliest." Expect the administration to say once again that the project requires "further study" sometime before June. The environmental movement simply has the administration cowed. Way back in August 2011, the White House appeared ready to approve the $5.3 billion project, which enjoyed the backing of Big Business and Big labor. Industry has estimated it would create 20,000 jobs.

A State Department report that month concluded the pipeline would bring "no significant impacts" to the environment. A leaked diplomatic cable even showed the administration was privately assuring the Canadian government that the project was on track.

The environmental community was outraged, and its stance has only hardened since then. The Sierra Club's board is now urging its members to engage in "civil disobedience" to stop the project. A mass protest in Washington, D.C., is set for Feb. 17.

"To build some political space for the president and EPA to take the necessary steps, our movement needs to show some numbers and some militancy," Michael Marx, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign, told the Nation.

Why do they feel the need to get militant? A fact sheet on TarSandsAction.org, a website sponsored by the environmentalist group 350.org, makes four points against the project.

First, it argues the pipeline won't create the jobs and economic growth its backers claim. Even if those estimates are overblown, it isn't much of an argument against a private industry project that requires no taxpayer money.

Only one of the four bullet points asserts that the pipeline will directly damage the environment -- if there is a spill. But last month Nebraska approved an alternate route for the pipeline, taking it away from the water sources environmentalists warned would be in danger.

The final bullet point makes clear the real motivation: The environmentalists just simply don't want to develop any new carbon-based energy sources. "[T]he expected lifetime of the Keystone pipeline is 50 years," and that is just too much greenhouse gas for them.

Never mind that Canada will develop the tar sands oil regardless of what the United States does. Energy-thirsty China would likely be the beneficiary.

Meanwhile, the killing of the pipeline would alienate not just the business community but the Canadian government, a close ally. And politically it would hand the Republicans a gift: It would prove the administration cares more for the greens than for jobs and economic growth.

"A lot of people try to say it is either-or. Either you do the project or you destroy the environment. I think there is a way to do things both ways -- where you can do the things without destroying the environment," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told me last year when I asked him about pipeline's future.

"I think that project and others have every chance of success by doing it the right way," he said.

Last year, the White House's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness -- better known as the "jobs council" -- issued a report urging the administration to approve the "timely development of pipeline, transmission and distribution projects." The council warned against putting up "regulatory and permitting obstacles" that would threaten such projects and "negatively impact jobs and weaken our energy infrastructure."

The administration's response? Spokesman Jay Carney claimed the council "wasn't talking about Keystone specifically." Subsequently, the administration stopped holding meetings with the council. Last month, it dissolved the council altogether.

Hey, at least there, Obama was willing to make a decision.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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