Keystone kiboshed?

President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline Wednesday, citing the compressed, 60-day deadline that Congress had imposed as insufficient time to fully examine whether it would be “in the national interest.”

The Transcanada pipeline had been the center of a storm of controversy this fall, symbolic of the national debate about jobs, the economy, energy security, and climate change. The proposed 1,700-mile pipeline would have carried crude oil from Canadian tar sands to refineries in Texas.

The State Department recommended on Wednesday that the permit be denied, saying that, at this time, the pipeline is determined not to serve the national interest. The Department has been reviewing the application since 2008. A press release from the department referred to the nation-wide protests in November of last year, saying that the “concentration of concerns regarding the proposed route” led it to call for an assessment of alternative routes that avoided the sensitive terrain of the Sand Hills in Nebraska. The Sand Hills are grassy dunes that thinly cover north-central Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer, which underlies over a quarter of irrigated land in the US.

The pipeline stood to have a considerable impact on the aquifer, but as several commentators pointed out, it would have had little impact on the bigger picture of national energy security and job creation. To be clear — the pipeline would not have been, in itself, catastrophic for global climate change; it would not have reduced US oil reliance on the Middle East, it would not have created thousands of jobs, and it would not have prevented Canada from directing its oil to China.

The pipeline did, however, become a political tool, a symbol that politicians and protestors used to make larger arguments about the administration’s economic, energy, and environmental policy. In December 2011, Congress included a clause in the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 that gave President Obama sixty days to determine whether or not Keystone XL was in the nation’s interest.

While Wednesday’s decision may be cause to celebrate, there also remains plenty to be cautious about. The President blamed the “rushed and arbitrary” deadline, rather than the (de)merits of the pipeline, for his decision, and the State Department said the denial “does not preclude any subsequent permit application.” This causes one to wonder: if the President decided to sacrifice some political capital in order to protect the aquifer and make a statement on energy and environmental policy, why did he not just man up and take a stand against the pipeline itself? The timeline appears to be a rather weak justification and leaves the door open for the permit to be approved in the future. With the damage done in terms of alienating some members of the GOP, why allow it to have possibly been for naught? The justification reduces the decision to political play — a reaction to the pointless partisanship that had linked the pipeline decision to a completely unrelated act in the first place — when it could have been so much more than that.

Under the current administration, jobs in oil and gas have increased by 13% (75,000 new jobs) in the past two years; more drilling rigs are being deployed than at any time since the mid 1980s, and exports of petroleum products have soared, making the US a net exporter for the first time 62 years. All this brings into question even more whether the decision was really the administration’s affirmation of a commitment to the environment. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations says that the administration’s weak justification was politically predetermined:

The original sin, if you will, in this was the decision back in November [2011] to delay a pipeline judgment until 2013. That set the ball rolling; then congressional Republicans in particular moved to force the administration’s hand, frankly knowing that it would prompt the administration to reject it. In the end, environmental pressure grew, so they got what they wanted; the pipeline was provisionally, or at least for now, rejected.

The sponsors of the legislation with the deadline got what they wanted, which was not approval of the pipeline; it was a talking point for politics. Citizens of Canada, the pipeline builders did not get what they wanted; the markets didn’t get what they wanted because it signals potential problems down the road for other pipelines. At this point, given the circumstances, it’s hard to see how well the administration could have moved, but you still have to take a step back and ask how these circumstances arose.

The question is certainly not closed. Depending on whom you talk to, Wednesday’s announcement was anything ranging from a rousing victory for environmentalists and the President’s display of bravery in the face of political pressure, to a weak passing of the buck to whoever is around in the first quarter of 2013. For now, the denial is certainly a cause for temporary relief, but by no means is it a signal that environmentalists can rest on any laurels — it’s right about time for the next push.