CALGARY, AB, Jan 9, 2014/ Troy Media/ – “Punt” is an interesting choice of words to describe U.S. President Barack Obama’s dithering on the contentious Keystone XL Pipeline, a piece of infrastructure that would make it easier to ship Canadian bitumen to the southern U.S.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to use that slang term this week is more than apt. The Urban Dictionary defines punt as “to skip class” or “avoid doing work”. And that’s pretty much what Obama has done.
The president is simply avoiding making a very tough decision, as a Democrat with environmental posturing that is at odds with the very liberal notion of creating a lot of jobs in a massive infrastructure project. It is a classic case of a president who will be damned – by some – for whichever course of action he chooses.
Obama should take some pressure off himself. As time passes, Canadian oil producers are getting more and more inventive at finding other ways to ship this valuable product. No doubt, the $5.3-billion northern leg of a pipeline that would link us up to the southern U.S. would be an economic boon, but western-based producers no longer fear a financial apocalypse if it isn’t built.
The alternatives have flaws of their own, but they work. One of the key options is shipping the product by rail. As we saw with the Lac Megantic disaster and several smaller rail mishaps, shipping by rail is more expensive, more dangerous and potentially way more harmful environmentally than building a pipeline. Even so, when no pipeline exists, rail will do the job.
In November, trains started shipping bitumen directly from a terminal north of Edmonton to a refinery near Chicago. Take that, Obama; right past your home town.
Keystone is not the only pipeline option, either. Enbridge Inc., for example, has announced it is spending $2.8 billion to twin its Spearhead pipeline from Flanagan, Ill., to Cushing, Okla., and $1.1 billion more to triple its Seaway system, which will move the crude to the Houston area. Enbridge says that by mid-year this year it will be able to move 775,000 barrels of bitumen to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The northern leg of Keystone XL has been on the books for more than six years – bogged down by a combination of environmental opposition and U.S. government regulation. It is a process with no clear end in sight. But executives with both Suncor and Canadian Natural Resources have said that the market access worries are “overblown”. In other words, all this opposition is not going to stop the shipment of bitumen.
As one pundit observed, these alternatives are not the easy “home run” that the Keystone XL pipeline would be for the oil patch. But, as time passes, this patchwork quilt of delivery tools creates a pretty complete delivery blanket. No one has said that Keystone XL isn’t needed; but it increasingly looks like it will, at least, one day be redundant.
Obama’s presidency has been marred with the worst case of indecisiveness since the well-meaning Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. Opportunities come and go while the hand-wringing continues in the White House. Another Democrat, Bill Clinton, had a simpler vision of what Americans want – “It’s the economy, stupid” was the campaign slogan that gave Clinton a landslide victory in 1992. It’s hard to believe that now, more than 20 years later, another Democrat is not able to draw upon such recent experience.
If the pipeline does not get built – and soon – Canadian producers may feel some pain. But not to the same degree as the U.S. tradesmen in hard luck states who so desperately could use the cash infusion such a massive project would provide.
There is no small measure of irony in the fact that the leader of the party that appeals to the working class is letting them down by punting the Keystone XL decision. If the opposition Republicans can get past their own self-destructive obsession with Tea Party radicalism, they are well-positioned to exploit this opportunity by backing a project Obama just can’t get his head around.
Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief and National Affairs columnist for Troy Media.