IN A burst of executive orders, President Trump sought Tuesday to revive two controversial oil pipelines — the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline. In the process, he reanimated a stale, mostly irrational debate about infrastructure projects that never merited such controversy.
Anti-pipeline activists bear a great deal of blame for this senseless state of affairs. Despite study after study showing that Keystone XL would have negligible effects on the climate, they built a movement around denying the permit the pipeline needed to cross the Canada-U.S. border, backed by implausible arguments about permanently trapping Canadian oil in the ground by choking off access to it. The movement was misleading — stopping the pipeline would not have really moved the needle one way or the other for the environment — and so it was an enormous misallocation of time and energy. Yet they got their prize, anyway, prevailing on the Obama administration to halt the project.
Following the Keystone XL episode, the Dakota Access Pipeline drew concerns about Native American rights as well as environmentalist objections. A tribe with a reservation near a section of the route protested that the project would pass under a federally administered reservoir near their land, and they accused the builders and the government of failing to consult them. In an exhaustive and careful ruling, a federal court rejected their procedural complaints. The fact that the proposed route parallels an existing natural gas pipeline, moreover, pours cold water on the environmental concerns. As long as the nation requires oil, it will need pipelines to go somewhere. Nevertheless, the Army Corps of Engineers decided in the waning days of the Obama administration to explore alternative routes.
Many on the other side of the debate, meanwhile, responded to the activism unreasonably. Industry and political figures wildly inflated the importance of new oil pipeline construction to the national economy, using the controversy as a political cudgel against Democrats.
If Mr. Trump wanted to break this unreasonable cycle, he would have sought to make clear that infrastructure permitting is no longer going to be politicized, instead of making these pipelines signature issues and pressing his administration to get to his desired result. Now that the Army Corps is reviewing the Dakota Access routing, for example, it is worth letting the experts finish their examination in case they uncover a routing that satisfies more of the parties involved. Instead, Mr. Trump is pressing them to scrap the new review before it is finished. He also apparently intends to make the pipeline issue a vehicle for his dangerous protectionist impulses, saying the projects will use American steel. So, international trade in oil is good, but global trade in steel is not?
The activists are promising to fight back with lawsuits and public protests. They probably will not be able to stop the projects from proceeding. But they and their opponents will no doubt manage to kick up a lot of dust before these controversies are finally resolved. More wasted energy.