For Republicans, the Obama administration’s slow decision making on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline has been the talking point that never stops giving. Since the 2012 campaign cycle, Republican politicians have constantly harped on how approving Keystone would supposedly create thousands of jobs and ensure domestic energy security. Mitt Romney promised that if elected, “I will build that pipeline if I have to do it myself.” Congressional Republicans, such as House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (Wis.), have suggested tying Keystone approval to unrelated measures such as debt-ceiling increases. Last month, all 45 Senate Republicans signed a letter to President Obama demanding an immediate decision on Keystone.
The Republican ardor for Keystone has always been irrational. The State Department found that the pipeline would only support 35 permanent jobs. And it would actually make gasoline more expensive in the U.S. because it would enable more exports.
It is tempting to see the right’s obsession with Keystone as the mirror image of the environmental movement’s arguably excessive focus on the project. But they are actually quite different. The activists getting arrested in front of the White House over Keystone may be placing too much emphasis on a pipeline instead of, say, EPA regulation of power plant emissions. But their concern for the detrimental impact of extracting tar-sands oil is sincere and well-founded.
Republican elites do not have serious, substantive reasons to fixate on Keystone. They do so because the average conservative voter likes energy exploration and the pipeline is a convenient symbol.