Pipeline issue exemplifies unproductive politics

The Keystone XL pipeline should never be erected, plain and simple. Still, a recent article by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for President Barack Obama to pass legislation approving the pipeline in exchange for a climate change agreement with Canada that would more than make up for the environmental impact of Keystone. My first thought was, “What would Frank Underwood do?” When reading this proposal, it seemed that the main character of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” would be all in favor of this plan. Living by a philosophy of “ruthless pragmatism,” Underwood values effectiveness above all else, and he does whatever it takes to acquire power and push his agenda. This would have been a classic Underwood maneuver—give the Republicans a victory, pacify the Democrats, satisfy the Canadians and get credit for creating jobs, while further cutting emissions, and negotiating a major climate treaty with one of America’s top trading partners.

Most people would agree that both sides of the Keystone debate have been exaggerating their claims; Democrats overstate the environmental perils of the pipeline and Republicans overstate the economic benefits. As the president, Obama has to balance these competing pressures––the proposed pipeline would cross international borders and therefore require his approval before moving forward.

Obama vetoed the United States Congress’s bill last week that would have taken the matter out of his hands by granting approval to the pipeline project.

Aside from blocking Congress’s effort to undermine him, this move was widely regarded as a sign that Obama is building up to a rejection of Keystone’s application. That would indeed constitute a significant symbolic victory for environmental groups. But symbolic reasons are not enough to justify a refusal of Keystone’s application.

While few people would actually want a president who lived by the motto “What Would Frank Underwood Do?” the show does provide a fascinating and relevant critique of modern American politics: nothing gets done because our politicians pursue their own interests.

There are a lot of groups in the world who all want a lot of different things. Reconciling all of them requires us to step back and refuse to let the interests of any one group dominate the discussions we have and the decisions we make. The reason Obama has the power to confirm or deny the pipeline’s application is that it involves international commerce—so why has it been treated as a diplomatic issue? We’ve become so caught up in fighting over how we want the discussion to be framed that we’re forgetting to get things done.

Certainly, the situations Obama faces daily are far more complex than anything in the fictionalized universe of “House of Cards,” and Bloomberg’s proposal may be impossible in practice. But if Obama can trade this non-issue for a significant international emissions agreement only months before a major international global warming conference kicks off, then I say, “Go ahead.”

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