Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Continuing Politics of Keystone

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U.S. Republicans did not wait long after their midterm gains to provoke a congressional vote on the approval of the Keystone Pipeline project. 

It was not the first such try.  Getting a strong and unequivocal vote in favor of Keystone in the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a strong majority, was easy.    The Senate, on other hand, was another matter.  The project narrowly failed to reach the needed 60 votes needed to make it to the president’s desk, with 59 votes in favor and41 opposed.  So once again, the Republicans failed.

Obviously, this was a failed political ploy meant to embarrass the president. Republicans knew that President Obama would likely have vetoed Keystone, and would have had the votes to resist an override by Congress (two-thirds of both Houses are required to override a presidential veto). The new Senate, with 54 Republican senators (nine more than in the current Senate) will not be sworn in until early January 2015. 

So it was all about politics—and the president expected as much, even in the current lame-duck Congress. 

However, Obama is not beyond playing politics himself.  He has essentially given up the Louisiana Senate seat currently held by Democrat Mary Landrieu (who faces a runoff election on December 6) to her Republican adversary.  He repeated that he will not decide whether to approve Keystone until a Nebraska Appeals court rules on the pipeline’s route through the state.

Obama is already looking ahead to how he’ll deal with the new Congress, to be sworn in on January 6, 2015.  It is clear that Obama has taken stock of the shellacking he and his party absorbed on November 4.  To keep his presidency relevant—and possibly help the future Democratic nominee in 2016—Obama likely intends to work on  a mixture of executive orders and compromise legislation on topics ranging from immigration to tax reform, as well as score some foreign policy triumphs. 

Therefore, to conclude that Obama’s eventual approval of Keystone is absolutely “off the table” and would inevitably be subject to a perpetual veto is to misunderstand the politics of the day in Washington.  Growing bipartisan support for Keystone assures that this debate is not over.

Both Obama and the Republican Congress need some victories with the 2016 presidential election on the horizon. Each must avoid, at all costs, being seen as the keeper of the political gridlock or the obstructionist-in-chief.  If anything, some U.S. analysts have argued that the November 4 midterms represented more a vote against Washington gridlock than the endorsement of the political agenda advocated by the Republicans.  Most pundits concede Obama’s disapproval numbers were also an important factor in the result.

The Canadian government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as the promoter of the Keystone project, TransCanada Pipelines, expressed obvious disappointment with this week’s failed vote.  Neither, of course, expected the vote to go through, much less survive a presidential veto.  Canada should remain “cool” as the debate continues in Washington, and the trend for approval is in its favor.

With an election certain to occur in Canada by no later than October 19 of next year (the election date will be set by legislation), the Harper government would dearly love approval of Keystone.    Current pipeline projects in Canada, including the Energy East project from Alberta through Québec, are stalled in the environmental review process and in Québec-Ontario domestic politics, where environmentalists have been highly critical of the project.  The Northern Gateway proposal, transporting oil from Alberta through British Columbia to Asian markets, will likely encounter court challenges from the First Nations communities.  The approval of Keystone, therefore, is the most promising project in the short term.

Outside of the political give and take, there are factors that will condition the politics in both countries in the months ahead.  Alberta’s oil sands exploration and production will not cease.  The U.S. energy revolution leading to less dependence on external supply will follow its course.  Significant environment challenges will remain and will have to be addressed.

Obama has already decided to issue an executive order on immigration reform and intends to bring in stronger EPA regulations, likely by the spring of 2015, to further curb carbon emissions—especially from the coal industry.  The Republicans have already signalled their strong opposition to these Obama initiatives, and will continue to work on repealing Obamacare.  Keystone will certainly not be a forgotten item in the bargaining process to come.  

The stage is set for intense political drama in Washington.   Expect the politics related to Keystone to continue well into 2015.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada-U.S. relations, Keystone XL pipeline, President Barack Obama
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