The Long, Slow Death of the Keystone XL Pipeline

President Obama announced his rejection of the project on Friday, ending a drama that’s lasted seven years.

Danny Johnston / AP

Updated on November 6, 2015, 12:44 p.m.

President Obama finally killed the Keystone XL pipeline on Friday, waiting until the last drop of suspense had drained from a debate that pitted environmentalists against champions of economic development and domestic oil production.

“The pipeline would not make a meaningful, long-term contribution to our economy,” Obama said. “So if Congress is serious about wanting to create jobs, this was not the way to do it.”

By the time the president made the announcement with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden standing by his side, the administration’s almost comically-long deliberation over the proposal—some seven years—overshadowed the pipeline itself, which would have stretched nearly 1,200 miles from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Republicans and centrist Democrats long held up Keystone as a job-creator that would be a boon to the nation’s ailing economy, but that argument began to lose steam as the economy strengthened in recent years.

Obama himself had cited studies finding that Keystone would create few permanent jobs, and as if to underscore his dim view of the economic argument, he rejected the project just hours after the Labor Department reported that U.S. employers had created 271,000 jobs in October and that the unemployment rate had dropped to 5 percent, a seven-year low.

On Friday, the president said that Kerry had met with him that morning and told him that the department’s review had concluded that construction of the pipeline “would not serve the national interests of the United States.”

“I agree with that decision,” Obama said. The decision is a blow to Canada, which had lobbied hard for the U.S. to approve the pipeline. The president said Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had expressed “disappointment” when the two spoke on Friday.

As the State Department proceeded with its long review of the proposal, the president had been gradually signaling his sympathy for the argument of environmentalists, who said the tar-sands pipeline would undermine the legacy of a president committed to combatting climate change. Still, he repeatedly rejected calls to speed up the review process. When Republicans made a Keystone bill their top priority upon winning full control of Congress earlier this year, Obama used his veto pen for just the third time in his presidency. Yet the administration’s delay in deciding on the project became too much even for Hillary Clinton, who announced her opposition in September when she said she could wait for Obama no longer.

In explaining his decision Friday, the president bemoaned that the Keystone had taken on “an overinflated role” in the nation’s politics. “It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said. “All of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster claimed by others.”

Obama argued that, in effect, the passage of time had showed that the economy could improve without the modest benefits offered by the pipeline. He cited the sterling jobs numbers and the fact that gas prices had dropped significantly in the last year—refuting another early claim by Keystone proponents. Finally, Obama said that approval of the pipeline would undercut a central premise of his administration’s economic agenda—that the U.S. could take aggressive action to combat climate change and protect the environment without sacrificing jobs and growth.

Republicans, of course, were unmoved. “This decision isn’t surprising, but it is sickening,” said the new House speaker, Paul Ryan.

By rejecting this pipeline, the president is rejecting tens of thousands of good-paying jobs. He is rejecting our largest trading partner and energy supplier. He is rejecting the will of the American people and a bipartisan majority of the Congress. If the president wants to spend the rest of his time in office catering to special interests, that’s his choice to make. But it’s just wrong.

Earlier this week, TransCanada, the company seeking to build the $8 billion pipeline, asked the State Department to suspend its review of the project. Critics suspected the request was not made because TransCanada was giving up on the pipeline, delaying the decision until after the 2016 presidential election, when a Republican victor might approve it. But the State Department rejected the plea, probably because its decision had already been made.