The Washington Times-Herald

December 21, 2011

Playing politics with an oil pipeline

Mitchel Olszak
CNHI

New Castle — When is a pipeline not a pipeline?

When it’s converted into a political football and used to divert attention from larger issues.

To hear congressional Republicans tell it, a proposed pipeline that would run from Canada across much of the United States is crucial to the nation’s economy. And the Obama administration is doing everything it can to make sure it’s never built.

But like most of what’s coming out of Washington these days, what’s said and what’s true are two different things. There are indeed differences over this pipeline, and elements of politics on both sides of the issue. But a few facts can put things into perspective.

The pipeline is intended to boost energy production by pumping petroleum from Canadian oil sands to various American refineries. These oil sands are a petroleum-laden, tar-like product that is America’s largest source of oil these days.

There’s no doubt that new construction from more than 2,000 miles of pipeline would provide an energy benefit to the United States. There’s also no doubt that thousands of people would be employed building that pipeline. The number of permanent jobs is far less dramatic.

Republican lawmakers are pushing the project as a jobs package, and inserted pipeline language into a bill that would extend a payroll tax cut into the new year.

Interestingly, that language does not specifically call for the construction of the pipeline. Instead it gives President Obama 60 days to make a decision.

Now, if you think it’s no big deal to dig a ditch and lay a pipeline across much of the United States, then you probably would make a good bureaucrat in China. That’s how such decisions are made there.

In America, however, we like to look at the lay of the land, so to speak, to consider options and even offer locals impacted by the project the opportunity to provide input.

Yet the Republican Party, which routinely gives lip service to the joys of local control, is advocating a big-government, cram-it-down-their-throats approach to this pipeline.

From the Obama administration’s view, the environmental impact of this pipeline is a concern. That appears to be especially so in parts of Nebraska, where sensitive lands could be impacted.

A recent agreement in that state to alter the projected pipeline route may speed the process, but this doesn’t mean the issue is resolved.

Again, a key point here isn’t that the Republican legislation forces construction of the pipeline. Instead, it forces Obama to take a stand within a narrow time frame. The goal of the bill isn’t to build a pipeline; it’s to put the president on the spot, with the hopes of creating a campaign issue in 2012.

Plus, it’s intriguing that Republicans are insisting on pipeline language before they will back a payroll tax cut. Isn’t this the same party that advocates tax cuts on a routine basis, arguing that they pay for themselves by putting money in the private sector and prompting economic growth?

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the bill with the pipeline language, but in a twist of its own, limited the tax cut to just two months. This will force Republicans to act again early next year, and House Speaker John Boehner is threatening to kill the final deal that most Senate Republicans agreed to.

There are good reasons to oppose a payroll tax cut — or any tax cut for that matter. Both parties in Washington need to bring spending under control. After that’s done, cutting taxes makes sense.

But rational policies and fiscal discipline aren’t part of the equation in Washington. Instead, we get an endless supply of games. And the American people are the big losers.

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Mitchel Olszak is a columnist for the New Castle (Pa.) News.