Thune should look forward

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, announced earlier this week that he has approved the new route through Nebraska for the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline will also run through western South Dakota.

Heineman's decision more or less clears the way for the U.S. State Department and President Obama to approve the presidential permit required for the project.

In this time of new beginnings – the start of a new year, the inauguration of our president, the opening of a new session of Congress – one can hope that things may change for the better.

It's already starting to feel like we may be in for a re-run of the last two years, however.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) issued a press release quickly after the news broke that Heineman had approved the pipeline route. He clearly placed the blame for the Keystone XL delay on President Obama.

"The ball is now squarely in the president's court," said Thune. "Now that TransCanada has worked with the state of Nebraska to reroute the pipeline around the Nebraska Sandhills, the president is running out of excuses for delaying this job-creating, domestic energy-producing project. It is time for the president to decide between job creation and energy production or political expediency. I call on the president to immediately lend his support to this bipartisan project so that we can begin investing in America's energy future."

Sen. Thune, a Republican, has opposed President Obama, a Democrat, on, well, just about everything for the last four years, and we South Dakotans, to a point, see nothing wrong with that. It's part of what politics is all about.

We are still holding on to the hope that there will be less rhetoric and more action as Congress and the president settle down and get to work after this week's festivities in Washington, DC. We must admit, however, that Sen. Thune has dampened our enthusiasm just a bit. It's not so much what he said in his press release. It's what he didn't say.

He didn't talk at all about the recent history of the Keystone pipeline, and how it became so controversial in the first place.

As proposed, the pipeline would provide added capacity for the transport of oil from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the United States, including Texas. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, its construction requires the approval of the State Department.

Environmentalists and most Democrats oppose the pipeline in large part because they oppose the development of the oil sands, which is a particularly pollution- and energy-intensive way to produce oil. Industry, unions and most Republicans, on the other hand, support the pipeline for economic and energy security reasons.

On its face, the decision whether to approve the pipeline looks like so many other partisan political conflicts, pitting pro-development Republicans against pro-environment Democrats. 

If we simply take our senator's word for it, one may presume that President Obama was simply being a stubborn obstructionist in 2011 when he postponed a decision on Keystone until after the 2012 presidential election. The president, however, had many good reasons to delay action on the pipeline.

What Sen. Thune seems to forget is the president did not initiate the resistance to the pipeline. It started in Nebraska. Residents of that state, including its Republican governor, wanted to make sure that the environmentally-delicate Sandhills area wasn't run over roughshod by the project. Of particular concern was the potential threat the pipeline might have posed, in its original route, to the aquifer in that region.

These certainly weren't insurmountable issues. In fact, the president was so confident that the problem would be resolved that he threw full support behind the construction of the southern half of the pipeline while Nebraskans and TransCanada worked on finding a better route for the northern portion.

However, Republicans in Congress saw the postponement of the decision as a political opportunity. In December 2011, they inserted a provision requiring the president to make a decision about the pipeline within 60 days into an unrelated piece of legislation.

This provision received full-throated support from Sen. Thune.

"In delaying the Keystone XL pipeline decision until after the election, President Obama chose his own job over hundreds of jobs that could be created in South Dakota," said Thune in a press release issued on Nov. 30, 2011. "With 14 million Americans currently unemployed and a struggling economy, the Obama Administration owes the country an answer on whether it will approve this job-creating project now, not after the next election."

Facing this deadline, President Obama rejected the pipeline, arguing that the deadline did not give the administration sufficient time to conduct the necessary environmental, safety and other reviews.  Given recent high-profile pipeline leaks in the news, his argument resonated with most voters.

By attempting to fast-track the approval process, Sen. Thune and other Republicans may have scored a few political points, but they also handed a victory to the project's opponents, whose environmental case against the pipeline (as distinguished from oil sands production) was always a fairly weak one.

Sen. Thune should just be honest with us. He and other members of the GOP supported a provision that was so unreasonable – make a decision in 60 days, Mr. President, or else! –  it had the potential to kill the pipeline project.

Thune should admit that he wasn't actually trying to stop the project. To the contrary, back in 2011, Sen. Thune and other members of the GOP preferred that a Republican president, namely Mitt Romney, would approve it in 2013.

Mr. Romney made enough blunders on his own to lose the 2012 presidential election. Friends like Sen. Thune weren't much help. Their mishandling of the Keystone pipeline issue wound up being more of a hindrance than a help to Romney's efforts.

So, it's not surprising to hear the senator this week once again try to convey the idea that the delay in pipeline construction in Nebraska is all the fault of the president.

Midwesterners know better than that. We urge the senator to forget about the past – we all make mistakes – and look ahead to ways he can work with our president to accomplish positive things for our state and nation.

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