A few years back, the Keystone XL pipeline was seen as a routine infrastructure project, designed to carry oil-like bitumen from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It's still no more than that, but it's become very much more.
Environmentalists say that it's a renewed commitment to dirty fuels at the expense of green energy. Keystone advocates say it's a project that will bring vital jobs. Neither is really true. The pipeline isn't a threat to green energy; it merely would provide stable and efficient transport for oil while other energy possibilities continue to evolve. It also isn't a jobs program; the employment it would provide is real, but mostly temporary.
But now, Keystone appears dead. Or is it?
On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama vetoed a bill that authorized construction of the pipeline. He did so not with a flourish but with a quiet 104-word letter:
Here's what that letter didn't say: Keystone is a bad idea. Environmentalists hope Obama will say that shortly, once final Keystone reviews by eight federal agencies are completed. Several previous reviews have been inconclusive on whether Keystone, by itself, would add to greenhouse gases, given that the oil it transports will be extracted from the Canadian tar sands, anyway.
Obama, who was once non-committal about the pipeline's benefits and dangers, has cast a more scornful eye at it in recent speeches. But he's left himself flexibility Tuesday, depending on what those final reviews conclude.
What Obama did say is that the call on Keystone should come from him - and that he won't let an impatient Congress do an end-around on "established executive branch procedures." (This comes, of course, from an impatient president who did an end-around on established Congressional procedures when he crafted immigration policy disguised as an executive order. Consistency, once again, is not a virtue of either party.)
So what comes next? Republicans will likely try again on Keystone, this time attaching similar pipeline language to a spending bill that Democrats and Obama will want to pass. It's a distasteful form of legislative arm twisting, and it probably would get vetoed again if it reached the President, which is unlikely.
What's more likely is that Keystone will get the nod in a couple years from a Republican president, or from President Hillary Clinton, who said in 2010 she was inclined to support the pipeline. (She's now declining to take a position until those agency reviews are in.) Clinton, who is no enemy of the environment, understood at one point that Keystone doesn't have to be, either. It's an efficient placeholder while we work our way toward the greener future we want. Or at least that's what Keystone was supposed to be, before it became the political trophy it is.
Peter St. Onge