Both right and left missing the point on Keystone XL

Both sides of the Keystone XL pipeline debate have made this issue the penultimate stand on everything from the health of the global ecosystem to the future of all traditional energy production.  Neither of these hyperbolic positions are beneficial to American energy strategy, let alone North American or global energy policies.  They are intellectually dishonest with respect to nature of the pipeline itself and the important debate about our nation’s energy security.

As a policy red-herring, Keystone XL is tailor-made for the Washington chattering class since it provides a perfect political foil for politicians to stoke their partisan crowds while requiring little to no substance about energy policy. 

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On the right, proponents make a superficial claim for supporting the energy industry and chest-thump about the moral high ground of “energy independence.”  For their effort they expect large campaign contributions from the “Big Oil” lobby.  On the left, opposition to the pipeline is a politically expedient way to both shore up “green” bona fides and preach about the moral hazards of “dirty oil.”  They subsequently translate their work into equally large checks from the “Big Enviro” lobby. 

The existence of a new Keystone XL pipeline would do very little to impact the production from Albertan oil sands, nor would it impact American national security in any meaningful way.  Both sides willfully overlook the fact that a Keystone pipeline already exists across the border from Manitoba to North Dakota.  The XL would merely add cross-border flow capacity directly to an existing refinery hub, but do so in a shorter length. 

Given that the project is merely an expansion of current capacity, the claim from the right that “we need this oil for independence” tends to ring hollow.  The simple fact that with or without the Keystone expansion the Albertan oil sands will be produced and be refined somewhere, renders the claim from the left that denial would “save the environment” as something more akin to NIMBYism than honest environmentalism. 

Keystone is damaging the energy policy debate since it is encouraging politicians to yet again use “energy” as nothing more than a petty partisan attack ad.

It averts our attention from larger issues of energy resources and security.  Even the term “Keystone” itself has become yet another proxy for old bimodal energy thinking.  “Yes Keystone” or “No Keystone” are just the new versions of “drill baby drill” and “no war for oil” bumper stickers, and as equally disingenuous.

A more substantive debate would revolve around whether permission from the government for private sector projects should depend on adherence to existing regulatory rules or the political whims of the person holding “the power of the pen.” 

The U.S. is a significant player in the global economy in virtually all areas of commerce except energy.  We have moved to re-align our economic policies and foreign policies with the new paradigm of increased information flow, globalization of both supply and demand of goods and services, and an awareness of 21st century geopolitical realities. Unfortunately our energy policy is still informed predominantly by a world-view mired in a 1960’s political mindset. 

Instead of expending copious political will and television airtime on a single expansion project of an existing energy asset that does not impact environmental or security issues, we should be focusing our best thinking on the larger issues of global energy security and promoting efficient development and transportation of all resources by our global allies.  

We need to advance an energy policy that treats our natural resources as a significant tool for diplomacy and economic health in the globalized marketplace. The era of when oil supplies constituted a national security concern is long since passed.  Allowing the State Department and Executive Orders to control imports and exports of American resources is a vestige of an archaic world-view.  With the new North American resource boom, we must shift our mindset from a 20th century stance of simply meeting our domestic demand from  hostile and unstable supplies to one where we are stewards of a precious resource base that should be used to aide and support ourselves and our allies around the world. 

Approve or reject the Keystone XL pipeline, but let’s not labor under the pretense any longer that the success or failure of this single pipeline has a meaningful impact on American energy security.  Promoting a substantial open border policy for energy resources - now that’s a novel idea worthy of debate.

Murphy is a former Department of Energy official under President George W. Bush. He is managing partner at Source Rock Partners and executive vice president of Marmik Oil Company.