The Phony Debate Over the Keystone XL Pipeline

And a smart (potential) end game for President Obama.

They're playing you for fools on both sides of the Keystone XL pipeline debate. Oil lobbyists and conservatives call it a jobs project; they're wrong. Environmental lobbyists and liberals call it a globe killer; they're wrong.

What each side has done is tease out its own micro grain of truth—then inflate it, distort it, and disseminate it through channels greased by ambition and cash. You can't believe these professional partisans.

The truth: Keystone is a litmus test for the debate on climate change, a straw man that will enrich lobbyists, consultants, and advocates on both sides of the fight without an iota of progress on a central question of our times: How do we balance economic and environmental concerns while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions due to human activity?

President Obama gives that question lip service. "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest," he said in 2013, "and our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

In fact, Obama's own State Department has determined that Keystone would not make climate change any worse. While the oil type envisioned for Keystone produces 17 percent more greenhouse gases than typical crude oil, the State Department concluded that, even without the pipeline, producers likely would find another way to sell the oil.

In other words, the environmental concerns over Keystone are much ado over almost nothing. That hasn't stopped environmental and liberal groups from making the "dirty oil" argument to the media, politicians, and donors.

The president has properly raised doubts about the jobs figures circulated by Keystone advocates. Typical of the type is GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who said of Obama on Sunday: "His own State Department said it's 42,000 new jobs."

Glenn Kessler, the impartial and thorough fact checker at The Washington Post, called that claim misleading. The truth: Keystone merely would create several thousand temporary construction jobs and far fewer permanent ones. Like its impact on the environment, Keystone's effect on the U.S. jobs picture is microscopic, especially when laid against the broader problem.

"The State Department report adds an important bit of context—this represents just 0.02 percent of annual economic activity across the nation," Kessler wrote. "Indeed, even the 42,000 figure, inflated though it may be, does not seem very large when compared to the 321,000 jobs added to the economy just in November."

The GOP-controlled Congress is likely to send a bill to Obama's desk authorizing Keystone's construction, pandering to its biggest donors and to the many voters inflamed by talk-radio trolls. They'll pretend it's a big deal.

Obama will veto it, pandering to his party's biggest donors and to the many voters inflamed by overwrought environmental groups. Environmentalists will pretend its a big deal.

The White House is not saying that Obama opposes Keystone itself. His veto threat hinges on a technicality: He can't decide whether the project is in the "national interest" until the Nebraska Supreme Court rules on whether Keystone's route through Nebraska was properly considered. White House press secretary Josh Earnest managed to keep a straight face while explaining the Nebraska dodge.

"I think the president has been pretty clear that he does not think that circumventing a well-established process for evaluating projects is the right thing for Congress to do."

There are two explanation for Obama's approach. The first is that he's part of the charade and wants to hide behind the robes of Nebraska Supreme Court justices. The second is that he gets the joke, and wants the last laugh.

Perhaps now that Republicans have exaggerated the value of Keystone, Obama wants to keep the issue alive until he can extract something he wants from the Republicans in exchange for approving the pipeline. That would be my strategy. Play the GOP for fools.

This post has been corrected to note the Keystone XL case is in front of the Nebraska Supreme Court.