What killed Keystone?

The Keystone pipeline ... explained
The Keystone pipeline ... explained

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The Keystone pipeline ... explained 01:47

Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama on Friday rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline
  • Andrew Finn: Pipeline became a magnet for lobbying dollars and media debate

Andrew Finn is associate with the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)President Barack Obama's rejection Friday of an application to build a controversial pipeline closes a chapter on what has proven to be the most discussed energy issue during his administration.

In a way, the controversy the Keystone XL pipeline generated is surprising. After all, while the merits of the project have been debated ad-nauseam, the pipeline's impact on greenhouse gas emissions would have been relatively minor compared to other proposed projects and regulations around the globe. But once KXL became a litmus test for environmental stewardship, the pipeline became a magnet for lobbying dollars and media debate.
How did this relatively innocuous project generate such opposition?
    Andrew Finn
    In part, the KXL application suffered from historically bad timing. The previous Alberta-to-United States pipeline, the Alberta Clipper, was quickly and quietly approved in 2009 by the Obama administration. But the Keystone XL application, submitted during the waning days of the Bush administration, rose to prominence shortly after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster; the spill of Canadian bitumen in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the same year; and the defeat of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the Senate in 2009. Rebuffed within sight of its decades-long goal of accounting for fossil fuels' greenhouse gas externalities, and buoyed by large and visible accidents, many environmentalists sought to block projects that would increase emissions.
    Of course, one of the struggles for the environmental community has been the search for tangible targets upon which to focus their efforts. Global warming as a concept has proved a nebulous and ill-defined villain, and while man-made global warming seems to contribute to anomalous weather phenomena, the extent is difficult to measure and can be hard to comprehend. This has made raising awareness and promoting solutions to climate change more difficult to explain and act upon.
    Another challenge has been the long-term nature of climate change, which does not lend itself to short election cycles, and the short-term expectations of shareholders. With such factors in mind, it was easy to turn Keystone XL into a proxy for the fight -- a tangible foe that could be vanquished in a relatively short time. Potent images of wildlife and property damage galvanize public attention and make the fight against climate change less academic and more emotional.
    And environmentalists opposed to the project had some strange bedfellows. Once the new route was proposed, Nebraska approved the project only to run headlong into a coalition of environmental activists and conservative groups concerned about eminent domain. On the other side, proponents included many labor and federal conservative lawmakers allied in support of the project. This dynamic created a confused and fluid political situation, which in turn made the project a magnet for lobbying dollars and media attention.
    As environmental groups learned during the cap-and-trade defeat, dealing with Congress can be a Byzantine process, with many different interests seemingly pulling in different directions. Indeed, even with a sympathetic president and majorities in the House and Senate, success was never guaranteed. Conversely, the power to approve cross-border infrastructure like KXL is vested in the president and the State Department. This simpler approval process was extremely attractive to both sides of the debate.
    So, after much huffing and puffing over KXL, where do we stand?
    America's climate commitments have advanced, but much of the impetus has been placed on the states through the Clean Power Plan, which still has a long and arduous fight ahead of it in the court system. The shale revolution, meanwhile, has added a massive competitor to the oil sands, while oil prices under $50 a barrel placed KXL on shakier economic footing. For its part, Canada has seen its other energy infrastructure projects thwarted, with only the TransMountain expansion and the Energy East pipeline still drawing breath. While a parade of Canadian cabinet ministers and an unprecedented lobbying campaign did persuade some Democrats to support the project, in the end they could not persuade the one man who ultimately mattered.
    Now that the project has been rejected, look for both the House and Senate energy committees to move legislation to take the authority for pipeline project approval away from the executive branch. With one major victory over the fossil fuel industry, both green and "Not in My Backyard" opposition to energy infrastructure projects will continue to grow throughout the continent. For Canadians, in particular the recently departed Conservative government, the rejection of the project will reverberate for some time.
    Now, however, the new Trudeau government, the Obama administration, and the next American administration will have the opportunity to create a more constructive dialogue about the fight against climate change and our shared energy infrastructure.