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Oil pipeline is a high-stakes chess game

It is one of the biggest chess pieces imaginable — almost 1,700 miles long — and yet Washington politicians keep moving it around as if it were a mere pawn in their unending game of partisan maneuvering.

The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed by TransCanada to carry crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, is the latest national issue ensnared in political brinksmanship.

Hailed by many as a way to help free the country from further dependence on foreign oil while producing more than 100,000 new jobs, the $7 billion project was expected to garner bipartisan support if its design and planned construction created minimal negative effect on the environment and posed little threat to human safety.

It was probably too much to expect politics not to get in the way, particularly leading up to a presidential election.

President Barack Obama made the first move when he announced last year that any decision to proceed would not be made until 2013 — after the elections. The president was caught in the middle of two strong Democratic constituent groups: environmentalists who opposed the pipeline and some labor unions that supported the jobs it would create.

While Obama’s decision to wait upset many pipeline supporters in Congress, they couldn’t have been surprised.

Congress had the next move. During the December debate to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, the Republican-controlled House attached an amendment to the bill requiring the president to decide by Feb. 21 whether the pipeline was in the “national interest.”

House GOP members thought they had the president in “check,” even though State Department officials, who get to weigh in because the project crosses international borders, said more time was needed to study alternate routes to avoid an aquifer in Nebraska.

Obama countered the deadline by denying the application at the recommendation of the State Department.

Check, at least until after the election. The administration said it will consider the project again after additional environmental reviews.

Of course, depending on how the election goes it could be a different administration looking at the plans.

There’s another political factor that isn’t getting as much attention as the fights among Republicans and Democrats and environmentalists and unions — and unions that like environmentalists. The Canadians aren’t happy with their American cousins right about now.

In an interview Jan. 17 with the CBC, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was clear that his nation would do what’s best for Canada in moving forward with Keystone. If that means finding other markets for Canadian oil, so be it.

Harper characterized Obama’s delay as caving to environmentalists, saying it was a “wake-up call about the degree to which Canada is ‘held hostage’ to U.S. decisions.”

“[J]ust because certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America, I don’t think that’s part of what our review process is all about,” Harper said.

Ouch.

The United States rightfully wants independence from foreign oil, but the “foreign” in question makes a big difference. Relations with U.S. allies in the Middle East are tenuous on even good days. Now, with Iran threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, energy security takes on a whole new significance.

Obama may have made a politically expedient move in delaying the pipeline, but Canada may be willing to clear the chess board and start over with a different player.

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