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Delay throws blue-collar workers under the Keystone bus

Posted: November 25, 2011 - 12:03am

The Obama administration’s decision that it would not decide until after the 2012 election whether to allow construction of the Keystone Canada-U.S. pipeline is a cynical effort to preserve support by environmentalists for the president’s re-election — even at the price of killing jobs.

The president had a clear choice between two parts of his coalition, organized labor and environmentalists. Organized labor lost.

Let’s be clear about what the pipeline decision is not about. It isn’t about stopping development of Canada’s tar sands oil.

Many American environmentalists disapprove of Canada’s decision to develop these resources. But American environmentalists’ views don’t count in Ottawa.

If the United States does not build a pipeline to bring the oil to American refineries, Canada will build one to the Pacific coast and export the oil to China. The only question is whether Canadian or American workers will build the pipeline and refine the oil.

The decision is also not about pipeline safety. There are almost 150,000 miles of oil pipelines in the United States, transporting more than 13 million barrels of oil a day. There have been few spills or leaks from these pipelines, although most are decades old. Pipeline technology is now well-developed and safe.

Nor is it about protecting the environment. Regardless of whether the pipeline is built, U.S. refineries will continue to need imported oil. Without the pipeline, the oil will arrive by tanker on the high seas. Oil tankers discharge more than 10 million gallons annually to the oceans, according to recent study by the National Research Council. Not building the pipeline means increasing ocean pollution.

Finally, the administration’s decision is not about the “smart diplomacy” we were promised in the 2008 election.

The friendly Canadian government has been angered by the administration’s delay. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacted to Obama’s decision by saying, “This highlights why Canada must increase its efforts to ensure it can supply its energy outside the U.S. and into Asia in particular. Canada will step up its efforts in that regard and I communicated that clearly to the president.”

Not building Keystone means more American dollars go to unfriendly regimes in the Middle East; building the pipeline sends those dollars to Canada, a reliable and democratic ally.

This decision is politics at the expense of America, Canada and the environment. Obama’s re-election depends critically on motivating a Democratic base disheartened and discouraged by everything from his failure to close Guantanamo to the Solyndra scandal.

Obama’s decision to pull back from earlier proposals to toughen ozone standards shocked many environmentalists.

Particularly upsetting was, as one environmental group representative put it, the “unprecedented” way the rules were killed: “The president just told the EPA to stop.” Approving Keystone would be the final straw. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune put it bluntly, if Obama approves the pipeline, “it will be increasingly difficult for our members to stand behind the president.”

With his re-election on the line, Obama did what he did best as a legislator — vote “present” and toss someone under the bus. Organized labor turned out heavily for Obama in 2008, not only delivering votes but providing workers for get-out-the-vote efforts.

Keystone is important to labor not just for the jobs it would bring directly, but for the lower energy costs it would yield. Cutting energy costs is critical to boosting U.S. firms’ competitiveness and preserving American manufacturing jobs.

Instead of making a decision that would support the American economy and create thousands of jobs for construction workers having a hard time finding work, Obama chose symbolic environmentalism. The substance he gave organized labor is real: you don’t count.

• Morriss is a chairholder in law and professor of business at the University of Alabama.

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