Last week, the State Department released its final report on the environmental impacts of the Keystone Pipeline amid intense media coverage. The reason many people in Maine are paying attention to how the Keystone decision plays out is that if this $7 billion pipeline project is approved, the immediate likelihood that the Portland pipeline will be used to carry the heavy crude across a large slice of western Maine to storage terminals in South Portland diminishes. And vice versa: a denial of Keystone makes the Portland pipeline a potentially attractive alternative.

Eight months ago, President Obama said his test of whether the project should be approved turns on whether it would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” And although few will actually read all 11volumes of the report, the takeaway messages look like a Rorschach inkblot: you see what you want to see—or fear you will see.

On the one hand, the report concludes that extracting oil from tar sands would result in 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of crude used in the United States. However, tar sands produce only 2 percent to 10 percent more greenhouse gases than the heavy crudes currently imported to Gulf Coast refineries from elsewhere.

Furthermore, the report concluded that blocking the project would not prevent tar sands from being developed because that crude oil instead would be shipped to markets via rail. And if tar sands oil were transported by rail rather than pipeline, the outcome would actually result in 28 to 42 percent more carbon emissions.

Thus, most commentators and headlines concluded that Keystone had passed Obama’s “climate test”—sort of. So what’s the ambiguity? In a word, politics.

Secretary of State John Kerry has 90 days from the release of the report on Feb. 5 to make a “national interest” determination on the permit, after which any federal agency could challenge the national interest finding within the next 15 days, which would then mean the issue gets kicked upstairs and becomes President Obama’s to resolve.

In the Oval Office there is no timetable for that decision to be made—except for how any decision, for or against, would affect the 2014 Congressional elections.

Steven Chu, the former secretary of energy, recently said, “I don’t have a position on whether the Keystone Pipeline should be built. That is for the secretary of state and the president. But I will say that the decision on whether the construction should happen [is] a political one and not a scientific one.”
Breaking news: the decision is political!

Both the State Department and the White House have been quick to look for room to maneuver.

Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones said the report “presents considerable analysis, but it does not answer the question about how a decision on the proposed project would fit into the broader national and international efforts to address climate change or other questions of foreign policy or energy security.” She added that the study relied on assumptions about pipeline capacity, oil prices and transportation and development costs that were “uncertain and changeable.”

The politics for Obama are daunting: organized labor wants the pipeline, but environmentalists hate it. Grassroots activists at have attracted national attention for presenting the pipeline as the symbol of whether Obama is serious about addressing climate change.

Democratic senators running for reelection in energy-rich states like Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska will need to support the pipeline if they have any hope of returning to the chamber and if Obama has any hope of retaining a sympathetic Senate.

The politics for Republicans, in contrast, are easy. If the pipeline is approved, they are in a victorious “told-you-so” mode; if it is denied, they have another powerful cudgel to wield against Obama in November—as if health care were not a juicy enough target.

Given these types of calculations, it is no wonder the White House punted on making a decision on Keystone prior to the 2012 elections and instead asked for more studies. Keystone was a no-win scenario for them then and it is a no-win scenario for them now.

The problem with symbols is they are better conduits of emotion than substance. The new national standards due out from the Environmental Protection Agency regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants will have way more impact on climate than the pipeline. Hundreds of coal-fired generators would be put out of business. But symbols are politically powerful.

My hunch is that if John Kerry and Barack Obama decide they are going to approve Keystone, they will do so within the next 90 days to reap whatever (slight) benefits that might accrue to them in November’s elections. If they decide they are going to deny the pipeline permit, they will look for a strategy to delay the decision until after November. Politics as a high wire act complete with waving symbols. 

Philip Conkling is a founder of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. He now operates Conkling & Associates.