The Keystone pipeline always mattered more as a political issue for Republicans than it did as a policy issue. Republicans have found themselves in the odd position of lambasting the Obama administration for high unemployment but lacking anything that could plausibly be labeled as an idea to address the problem. (All the Republican economic ideas were hardy perennials for which, even if you think they’d work, which I don’t, the effect would be long-term.) Keystone gave them an easy issue: build the pipeline, and 20,000 people will have jobs.
Twenty thousand jobs is not a lot of jobs in the scope of the American economy — and the actual number of jobs, probably around 6,000, is even less — but it sounds like a lot. And simply because Keystone had become the party’s answer to the question “What is your jobs plan?,” the issue had a lot of political value. So much value that forcing the administration to oppose the pipeline would make much more sense than finding a way to approve it. That’s why Republicans forced an early decision on the pipeline despite the State Department’s warning that this would force it to turn the project down. Expect Mitt Romney to make the Keystone pipeline a centerpiece of his general-election campaign.
As for the policy merits, blocking the pipeline isn’t a shining example of well-designed environmental policy. Figuring out whether, and how much, the pipeline would increase carbon emissions is really hard — there are any number of variables in play, so you can’t even be sure whether and when the oil will be burned in the absence of the pipeline. (Here’s Brad Plumer arguing that blocking the pipeline won’t do much; here’s a contrary view.) The basic problem is that the Obama administration has been forced into the world of second- and third-best options for controlling runaway climate change. The best options would use market forces to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But a carbon tax never got off the ground, and centrists in Congress killed cap and trade. Those measures all failed because they made the cost of limiting carbon emissions explicit. Voters like free lunches.
So now the administration is limiting carbon emissions in ways that hide the costs. The agenda here is actually far deeper than liberals have given the administration credit for. They’ve written stronger fuel economy standards, tougher regulations on mercury admissions, and are working on greenhouse gas emissions standards for power plants.
There’s another thing all these moves have in common: They circumvent Congress and rely on executive action (or, in the Keystone example, inaction.) Of course, this also means that if Obama loses, his environmental agenda will go up in smoke.