Obama's Veto of Keystone XL Pipeline Probably Doesn't Mean the Endgame

Administration leaves unclear whether it would ultimately grant or refuse a permit to the cross-border pipeline, perhaps opening the door to bargaining.

President Obama recently vetoed legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Credit: Pete Souza, White House

President Obama on Tuesday briskly vetoed legislation to approve construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. The bill, which had easily passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate last month, was rejected within hours of its official delivery to the Oval Office.

The White House said Obama rejected the bill because it would have short-circuited his administration's prolonged review of the pipeline, a project that over the years has become a litmus test of his commitment to fighting climate change.

But the administration left unclear whether, or when, it would ultimately grant or refuse a permit to the cross-border pipeline, meant to carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands crude every day from Canada toward refineries on the Gulf Coast.

As neither chamber of Congress appears to have a two-thirds majority ready to override the veto, it is also unclear how or when Republicans in Congress intend to carry on the fight, as they have promised to do.

The veto, only Obama's third ever, is widely seen as an opening shot in a long fight between the administration and Republicans in Congress on climate change and other environmental issues, as well as on other ideological differences.

It was welcomed by pipeline opponents as a spine-stiffening victory for grassroots activism. "After four years of rallies, marches, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, we're thrilled to see President Obama take an important first step by vetoing this love letter to Big Oil," said May Boeve of 350.org, which helped bring the anti-pipeline struggle from the stubborn ranks of ranchers and other landowners along the pipeline's route, onto the streets of Washington and New York.

The fossil-fuel camp in Congress called it, in the words of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, "a short-sighted, politically driven mistake." Republicans had elevated the construction project to the top of their agenda in the new Congressional session, and vowed not to give up.

"The president is sadly mistaken if he thinks vetoing this bill will end this fight," said House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an op-ed column in USA Today. "Far from it. We are just getting started."

Echoing the views of environmental advocates, Democrats called for Congress to seek better solutions to the twin problems of energy and climate.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said that instead of seizing on one project, "the Republican leadership should immediately focus on passing a long-term transportation bill that will support millions of jobs."

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said: "Our job now is to aggressively transform our energy system away from fossil fuels into energy efficiency and sustainable energy."

Obama's veto message said that the bill "attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.

"Because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest­––including our security, safety and environment––it has earned my veto."

His decision, in other words, was a defense of presidential prerogative.

American Petroleum Institute president and CEO Jack Gerard criticized the president's veto of the bipartisan Keystone XL legislation as "politics as usual here in Washington."

But there's not much that is usual about the KXL standoff.

Business as usual would mean handing the pipeline prize over to the political horse-traders for some kind of grand compromise.

What tempting prize might Republicans offer in exchange for this one pipeline––approval of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to regulate the use of coal in power plants, which they despise? Resurrection of cap-and-trade legislation like the bill the House passed in Obama's first term, but is now dead and buried? A tax on carbon? A Paris climate treaty? These are all poison to the Congressional GOP, which is not willing to accept that manmade climate change is an important problem.

Obama, for his part, has moved over the years from including pipelines as just another part of an all-of-the-above energy policy to confronting the Keystone question principally in the light of climate change.

With this veto he has walked to the Rubicon, perhaps even dipped his toe into it.

It's not yet clear whether he plans to cross it.

Perhaps the president has decided to engage in the climate fight on every possible front for the rest of his term in office. Or maybe he sees this pipeline as an example of a long-lived project that locks in fossil fuels at a time when the world needs to back away from them. Or it could be that he just wants to bolster his beleaguered environmental base. Any or all of these factors could lead the president to squelch KXL rather than to bargain away his own power.

Or, as so many times before, he may let the decision slide––to shadow-box with Congress for a while more. After all, it's just a few months before another summer construction season will have come and gone, without anyone breaking new ground across the fragile landscape of Nebraska and on, to hook up with existing pipelines carrying crude oil south.

The pipeline builder, Transcanada, which has already completed the network's southern leg, said it "remains fully committed to Keystone XL despite today's veto."

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