The polarizing debate about whether the United States should issue a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pipe crude from oil sands near Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, is an almost surreal lesson in issue-framing. The pipeline has become a political football in an election season: Republicans have used it as a cudgel to paint President Barack Obama as a job-killer, while the White House hails it as a rare victory for environmentalists at a time when much of its climate change agenda has stalled.
The political point-scoring has only served to obscure the issues raised by Keystone XL. Oil is likely to be in short supply in the coming years, given the turmoil in the Middle East. Therefore, U.S. environmentalists are unlikely to be able to stop Canada -- which, ironically, has a far more proactive greenhouse gas management policy than the United States -- from finding buyers and transportation for its secure and readily available oil, no matter how much pollution it may create.
Because it crosses international borders, Keystone XL needs a presidential permit from the U.S. State Department to move forward. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially indicated that such approval would be forthcoming, but a political uproar from environmentalists delayed the decision. Congressional Republicans inserted a provision in a tax bill giving the administration a Feb. 21 deadline to make a decision, but on Jan. 18 Obama gave the pipeline a thumbs-down, saying that the deadline made it impossible to adequately assess the pipeline's environmental impact. The saga continued on Jan. 30, as 44 senators signed their names to a new bill that would green-light the pipeline, bypassing the president.
As Keystone XL has been transformed into an election issue, both sides have shifted their line of attack. Republicans have largely abandoned the claim that Canada's oil is important for U.S. energy security, preferring to slam the president for dumping a plan that they say would have created 20,000 American jobs. Primary contender Newt Gingrich has assailed the president for his "utterly irrational" policy, which would "kill American jobs, weaken American energy, [and] make us more vulnerable to the Iranians."
Environmental groups have also switched their messaging. They originally criticized the line for carrying crude from oil sands, which require higher carbon emissions and large-scale water demands to produce than conventional oil. However, after an oil pipeline leak in North Dakota, environmentalists pressed the White House to consider the risk that leaks would pollute the locally important freshwater Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.