Obama’s Keystone XL decision is about more than just the environment

President Obama finally vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline project on Friday after keeping it on the table for the past seven years, bringing an end to nearly a decade of activist and political drama. The move demonstrated a turn in Obama’s growing pro-environmentalist leanings as he prepares to enter his last year as president. 

While the dialogue around whether or not the Keystone pipeline should pass has been largely centered around the “environmentalist versus industrialist” dilemma, there are several less-mentioned issues at play in the debate surrounding the integrity and necessity of the pipeline that reveal much about the president’s decision. 

Had it been approved, the pipeline would have connected Canadian crude oil production facilities to U.S. refineries in Texas, ensuring a secure supply of crude oil to Americans and increasing industrial investment for Canadians. Some labor leaders were also in favor of the pipeline because of the amount of jobs it would have created and secured. The pipeline appealed to many as part of a larger political effort to wean the United States off its dependence on Middle Eastern states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, for oil, and shift instead to dependence on less-risky Canada.

Environmental concerns stem from the fact that Canadian oil sands are known to be damaging to the environment, as well as from the fear that the United States invests too much in furthering the oil industry and not enough in developing the renewable energy sector. 

Another aspect of the Keystone project debates that received relatively little coverage is the impact the pipeline would have had on Native American tribal sovereignty. The pipeline would have cut directly through several South Dakota reservations of the Sioux Nation — a fact which led the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to call approval of the pipeline a declaration of war.  The pipeline’s installation, the tribe’s president argued, would have represented a breach of tribal sovereignty and would have posed serious community health problems. 

Debate over the pipeline became heavily politicized, largely due to its international nature. Because it would have extended into Canada, the pipeline required presidential approval, thus putting most of the decision making on the Obama administration and imposing a deep partisan divide. This also allowed activist groups on both sides to target Obama in their campaigns and protests, which hit their peak in 2011.

Despite all this action, Obama’s decision, it seems, ended up centering mostly on economic issues, demonstrating how often money, rather than interested people’s desires, determines political decisions. Mexico recently opened its oil industry to foreign investment, which will likely lead to an increase in their domestic production of oil and provide the United States with another non-OPEC supply of oil.  Canada, too, has streamlined its transportation of crude oil by expanding continental rails and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, domestic oil production is increasing dramatically compared to that in OPEC states. With crude oil becoming cheaper and cheaper, the short term need for the Keystone XL pipeline is not as high. Thus, it seems money drove the project’s rejection. Though Obama’s decision to veto the pipeline is a favorable one for those concerned with the environment, the politics of the decision seem to ignore and undermine the voices of concerned people who have the most to gain and lose from the pipeline.