Weren’t we talking about a pipeline?

President Obama’s recent decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has environmentalists celebrating, while Speaker Boehner is accusing the president of destroying our economy. Both reactions are completely out of proportion to what the president actually did, but that’s not surprising. The two sides were already talking about things that had little to do with the proposed pipeline, so of course their reactions had little to do with what the president said.

By imposing an arbitrary deadline, Congress required the president to make a premature decision on a proposal that doesn’t even have a definite route yet. The president did the only reasonable thing he could do — he turned down the proposal but invited the developer to resubmit it. He didn’t put a halt to the pipeline; he just put a halt to Congress’s ploy.

Despite the fact that the idea of a pipeline is still alive, environmentalists were quick to claim victory, and Republicans were quick to claim defeat.

To environmentalists and Republicans alike, this was never really about a pipeline. Sure, some environmentalists are concerned about where the pipe will go, but mostly we hear about where the oil is coming from before it goes into the pipe. Extracting oil from tar sand takes a lot of energy, which translates into more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere for each barrel of oil produced. But targeting a pipeline is, to put it mildly, a rather oblique way of fighting climate change.

To Republicans, the fight is supposedly about creating jobs and lowering the price of gasoline. In reality, the pipeline would only be a drop in the bucket for jobs or prices, but it’s a convenient way to make Obama look like he wants to kill jobs and make us all miserable. By putting a deadline on approval before the plan is finalized, Boehner and his allies made it clear that either they don’t give a hoot where the pipeline goes or they fully expected Obama to deny it. You might think they were trying to sabotage the proposal, rather than support it.

Personally, I think the pipeline proposal has little to do with jobs, prices, or carbon dioxide. I care about where the pipeline goes and how much damage the actual pipeline, not the tar sands in Canada, might do. I care about greenhouse gases, but that means I want to reduce the demand for oil, not make it harder for suppliers to meet that demand. And from a strategic perspective, if a war in the Middle East — or a blockade — cuts us off from major oil suppliers, we might be really glad if we have a pipeline from Canada.

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