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Why the Keystone pipeline decision (probably) won’t matter in 2012

at 05:05 PM ET, 01/18/2012

The Obama Administration’s decision to reject a Canadian firm’s plan to build a massive oil pipeline — known as the Keystone XL — that would cut a swath through the country’s heartland is being praised by the environmental community and derided by Republicans.

Judging from the reaction in the immediate aftermath of the decision, you might assume that the Keystone pipeline will mark a seminal moment in President Obama’s 2012 re-election race.

But there are at least three reasons to think it won’t.

1. Regular people don’t care: While the Keystone pipeline is a HUGE deal in the environmental community — there were concerns that the oil might leach out along the way and that it would have run through a protected habitat in Nebraska — it’s simply not an issue that has broken through with the average person.

There is no — we repeat no — credible polling on how many people are even aware of the pipeline (or the debate over it), a fact that suggests that it’s not penetrated anywhere close to broad public awareness. (There is polling galore about virtually everything that any significant group of people care about these days.)

Republicans have and will continue to argue that whether or not people know anything about the Keystone pipeline specifically, it’s a stand-in for an administration more focused on their environmental base rather than creating jobs. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, said the Keystone deicison “shows a president who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy.”

Maybe. But Keystone seems like a very minor point in that overall argument that may not persuade people. After all, if you think the president is doing his best to turn the economy around, does him vetoing an oil pipeline you have never heard of change your mind?

In short: If you care about the issue, you really care. But most people don’t.

2. Philosophical not political: Yes, environmental groups — a key part of the Democratic base — badly wanted the Keystone pipeline stopped. But organized labor, another foundational bloc of the Democratic base, wanted the pipeline approved in order to create jobs.

That split within the party’s base will allow President Obama to frame the decision as one not motivated by partisanship — since he went against labor — but rather driven by genuine concerns about the environmental impact the pipeline could have.

Independents — the key voting bloc in 2012 — may in fact react positively to the principle over politics pitch the President will make on this issue.

The key to that strategy succeeding, of course, is labor expressing their disappointment but not outright outrage with the Obama decision since the latter reaction would lead to a series of stories about whether the incumbent has problems within his base.

At the moment, labor seems to playing along. “This was an important decision for the planet, the environment, and the environmental community which will require an even more demonstrated concern and commitment to concrete plans about  jobs,” said Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “Americans and their families need both jobs and long term environmental protection, and the President needs to continue to be aggressive in meeting both goals.”

3. It’s not forever, it’s just for now: Lost in the hype over the Obama Administration’s decision is the fact that while they are rejecting the current proposal, they are allowing future proposals to be made.

That means that the Keystone XL pipeline (or something similar to it) is only dead until after the 2012 election — not dead forever.

And, Obama seemed to open the door for a reassessment at some point by blaming the decision to veto it for now on congressional Republicans who had forced a deadline for his decision.

“This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people,” the president said in a statement.

 
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