The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Perception Deception on Keystone XL

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted November 10, 2015

It’s too bad that when President Obama finally announced his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, he turned his back on American jobs, economic growth and increased energy security – each of them compelling, “national interest” reasons for building the pipeline. Also unfortunate is that the president also turned his back on science and fact.

Read the State Department’s final word on Keystone XL, and you see that State, as it said in its previous environmental reviews, acknowledges that the pipeline would have little to no climate impact.

The Keystone XL rejection was about perceptions and appearances – perceptions the president and his administration created, detached from science and fact set forth in State’s analysis, to help cultivate the appearances of climate change leadership.

Throughout Keystone XL’s tortuous, seven-year slog at the White House, the pipeline – this pipeline – was a symbol, a foil the administration used to help keep the professional activist class activated and the world climate community applauding. Meanwhile, more than 12,000 miles of oil and natural gas pipeline have been built in the U.S. – enough to cross it four times – without a peep from the president. Interesting.

During his Keystone XL rejection statement last week the president repeated a number of the claims he and others have used the past few years to foster false perceptions of the pipeline project:  

“Now, for years, the Keystone Pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse.  It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel …”

The fact is the president and the White House have been the leading inflators-in-chief on Keystone XL all along, dragging out a decision on the project for more than seven years. The administration so often attributed its delays to “the process,” yet no pipeline in history was put through so many reviews over so many years – each of them actually fortifying the argument for building the pipeline. For the president to suggest he was some kind of bystander while the Keystone XL debate grew longer and hotter is silly. More from the president:

“The pipeline would not make a meaningful long-term contribution to our economy.”

Probably the key word above is “meaningful.” The State Department acknowledged (as it has in its previous reviews) that Keystone XL would create 42,100 jobs during its construction phase – direct, indirect and induced jobs. State also said the project would generate more than $2 billion in employee earnings, $55.6 million in property taxes spread across 27 counties in three states during the pipeline’s first full year of operation, result in $3.1 billion in contracts, materials and support purchases and contribute $3.4 billion to U.S. GDP. Sounds pretty meaningful. Read the following from Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, and you’ll see that working Americans certainly saw Keystone XL as a “meaningful” infrastructure project:

“President Obama today demonstrated that he cares more about kowtowing to green-collar elitists than he does about creating desperately needed, family-supporting, blue-collar jobs.  After a seven-year circus of cowardly delay, the President’s decision to kill the Keystone XL Pipeline is just one more indication of an utter disdain and disregard for salt-of-the-earth, middle-class working Americans. … We are dismayed and disgusted that the President has once again thrown the members of LIUNA, and other hard-working, blue-collar workers under the bus of his vaunted ‘legacy,’ while doing little or nothing to make a real difference in global climate change.  His actions are shameful. … Barack Obama’s disdain for working people is evident. The President may be celebrated by environmental extremists, but with this act, President Obama has also solidified a legacy as a pompous, pandering job killer.”

One reason for O’Sullivan’s passion on this issue undoubtedly is an awareness that energy trade with Canada, our No. 1 supplier of imported oil, is a win-win for the United States. According to government data, for every dollar spent on Canadian imports the U.S. receives 90 cents back in U.S. exports sold to Canada. Obviously, Keystone XL would be important in that beneficial trading relationship.

In his remarks the president claimed credit for lowering gasoline prices, yet somehow the U.S. energy revolution’s impact on global crude supply and costs, reflected in today’s pump prices, eluded his mention. That’s probably because production of oil and natural gas in areas under federal control, onshore and offshore, has declined on the president’s watch – even as production in non-federal areas increased. More perceptions from the president:

“Shipping dirtier crude oil into our country would not increase America’s energy security.  What has increased America’s energy security is our strategy over the past several years to reduce our reliance on dirty fossil fuels from unstable parts of the world.”

The “dirty” oil claim from the president has been discussed before. It’s an oft-repeated misnomer, one that ignores the reality that on a life-cycle, wells-to-wheels basis, Canadian oil sands is comparable to other heavy crudes that are used in the U.S., including some domestic crudes:


The president:

“Three years ago, I set a goal to cut our oil imports in half by 2020. Between producing more oil here at home, and using less oil throughout our economy, we met that goal last year – five years early.  In fact, for the first time in two decades, the United States of America now produces more oil than we buy from other countries.”

The above is more of the president layering on the perception that the administration has had something to do with the American oil and natural gas revolution, when it really hasn’t. Falling imports are largely the result of domestic production gains on state and private lands, not White House leadership. The administration has been too busy with a regulatory march targeting oil and gas production to lead on domestic energy development. The president:

“[T]oday, homegrown American energy is booming, energy prices are falling, and over the past decade, even as our economy has continued to grow, America has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”

Indeed, America has cut carbon emissions – with the increased use of natural gas, made possible by the shale energy revolution – playing a significant role. While others talk about climate goals, the United States is leading. Safe and responsible energy development is facilitating fuel substitution, which is a big reason monthly power sector emissions of carbon dioxide reached a 27-year low earlier this year.

So, instead of pushing out disingenuous rhetoric about “dirty” fossil fuels and advancing policies that stand in the way of increased energy development here at home, the president should insist on more federal oil and gas lease sales and efficient permitting processes by the agencies he directs. He should call off efforts by his administration to create additional, unnecessary regulatory layers.

As we say, the building of perceptions around Keystone XL has little to do with the actual merits of the pipeline project and its bearing on the U.S. national interest – in terms of domestic economic prosperity and greater American security in the world. The president:

“Today, we’re continuing to lead by example.  Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

And there it is: The administration’s Keystone XL decision was about appearances. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored this his department’s statement:

It is “critical for the United States to prioritize actions that are not perceived as enabling further GHG emissions globally.”

Forget the science, which said Keystone XL would have little or no impact on climate. It’s about making appearances for others. Forget the sound economic principles that underlie the construction of a large piece of valuable energy infrastructure. It’s about leadership at conferences and gabfests while U.S. construction workers trudge along under the weight of double-digit unemployment. Forget about actually strengthening the United States’ standing in the world by securing more North American oil. It’s about redefining the U.S. national interest into … something else.

Yes, climate is to be taken seriously, which is why the United States is doing its part, lowering CO2 emissions with a big assist from using more natural gas, while Canada does its part. The point, again, is that scientific analysis said Keystone XL would have no significant climate impact. For the president to reject the scientific conclusions of his own State Department – to push perceptions implying otherwise while claiming credit for domestic energy trends he has actually hindered – is deceptive and not in the welfare and security interests of the United States.

A couple of years ago retired Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s former national security advisor, said the following – still true:

“Any nation that fails to secure the energy its citizens need leaves itself vulnerable to the whims of those who may not share their national interests. … A nation begins to decline when it ceases to be able to make the decisions it must make, and it knows it must make, in order to support its own national interests and integrity. … If we fail to grasp the enormous opportunity presented by the Keystone XL pipeline, we will miss out on a chance to improve the energy security of the North American alliance.”

Gen. Jones spoke of an energy policy approach that addresses national and global realities, not perceptions. Unfortunately, President Obama’s energy policies serve the latter instead of the former. 


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.