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It would seem that Wednesday the Obama White House put a dagger through the heart of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. But did it? In a presidential election year, very little in American politics is exactly as it appears.
In accepting the State department’s recommendation that he not grant a construction permit to Keystone, President Barack Obama pointed out that he was heeding that advice not because of the merits of the pipeline project, but because “the rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans … prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially (on) the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment.”
This is political theatre, pure and simple. It is intended solely to solidify the “green” vote behind Obama in November’s presidential election and, for the general electorate, to make it appear as if Mr. Obama’s Republican opponents are truly to blame for the thousands of jobs that will not be created.
But look carefully at what Mr. Obama and the State department have both said. (Warning: This will require a nearly Clintonian focus on the parsing of words.)
In its official announcement, State declared “the Department does not have sufficient time to obtain the information necessary to assess whether the project, in its current state, is in the national interest.” So, it added, it had to recommend to the president that “the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline be determined not to serve the national interest.”
The wording is important for two reasons.
Back in December, Congress had forced a quick pipeline decision on Mr. Obama. The president wanted to wait until 2013 (after this fall’s presidential vote), but Congress (including the Democrat-controlled Senate) wanted a decision by late this February. In voting to force Mr. Obama’s hand, Congress not only set Feb 21 as the deadline, they added that the only reason he could reject the pipeline was if it failed to serve the U.S. “national interest.”
He couldn’t use the environment as an excuse, or foreign ownership of the pipeline, unless, of course, that was deemed to be not in the American national interest. But the Republicans were confident the fact that Keystone was owned by Canadians – very reliable allies – would ensure that wouldn’t be the case.
So Mr. Obama, cleverly, has used the lack of time as itself a threat to the national interest. Thus the White House has been able to evoke Congress’s national interest clause without actually ruling the pipeline is contrary to America’s interests. That leaves the potential to approve the pipeline later very much alive.
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/01/18/lorne-gunter-obamas-keystone-rejection-just-political-theatre/