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Barry Smitherman’s Truthiness Problem on the Keystone Pipeline

Or, Why Barack Obama isn't just like Kim Jong-Il
by Published on
photo by M.V. Jantzen (via Flickr)

This is quite possibly the most poorly thought-out op-ed by a Texas public official in a long while, or at least since Todd Staples issued a “Re-declaration of Independence” from the “terrorists [that] are invading Texas farms and ranches.”

On Monday, the Texas Tribune published a piece by Barry Smitherman — a Perry-appointed commissioner on the Texas Railroad Commission and author of If Jesus Were an Investment Banker (currently for sale on Amazon for the low, low price of $137.50) — excoriating the Obama administration for derailing the Keystone XL pipeline. Some highlights:

America was dealt a devastating blow by our “Dear Leader.” With the flick of his pen, President Obama killed 20,000 construction jobs, destroyed at least $7 billion in new investment, committed the U.S. to sending $36 billion a year to hostile dictatorships like Venezuela for years to come, and set the wheels in motion to send China almost 1 million barrels of North American oil every day.

[...]

Hugo Chavez isn’t the only one who is happy about Obama’s decision. The Communist Chinese Government is also thrilled.

[...]

In an ironic twist, the President’s Jobs Council released a report calling for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which would mean increasing North American oil and gas production. The next day, the president killed Keystone XL and eliminated 20,000 jobs, then hopped in Air Force One and used about 11,000 gallons of jet fuel to fly to Disney World. Unfortunately for America, Obama sees no problem with saying one thing one day and doing the opposite the next. Perhaps Disney World is a good place for the president to remain since he so clearly lives in a fantasy land.

In other words, Obama is just like a certain dead North Korean dictator because he refused to sign off on an unpopular and potentially environmentally disastrous project after Republicans in Congress imposed an arbitrary deadline. Oh, and his best friends are Hugo Chavez and the Red Chinese. 

It’s not surprising that Smitherman, a former investment banker and staunch free-market ideologue, is in support of the Keystone pipeline. But his op-ed is still remarkably apopleptic. I don’t begrudge him that. I do take issue with several questionable assertions.

 

1) Myth: Keystone Is Finished

Smitherman writes his entire column as if Obama’s decision this month to reject a permit for the pipeline means it’s a dead deal. Not even the most ardent Keystone opponents believe that. Neither does the company or the vast majority of disinterested observers. Says the Washington Post:

A war of words is being fought on the campaign trail. And some House Republicans vow to again seek legislation to clear the path for the controversial pipeline. Environmental groups say they will fight not only new Keystone proposals but also other major oil pipelines that would carry crude from Canada’s oil sands region.

Meanwhile, TransCanada, which proposed the pipeline, said it will not only file a new permit application but also might pursue a truncated system within U.S. borders that would not require State Department approval.

The Obama administration has said the decision was “not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline” and that “it does not change [the] Administration’s commitment to American-made energy that creates jobs and reduces our dependence on oil.” 

2) Truthiness: The pipeline will create 20,000 jobs

Three times in his piece, Smitherman states that Obama’s decision “killed 20,000 construction jobs”; “kill[ed] off 20,000 construction jobs”; “eliminated 20,000 jobs.”

I emailed Smitherman to ask for his source. He replied that the figure came from TransCanada and Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist-for-hire who was paid by TransCanada to do a much-criticized economic impact analysis.

The official company line from Keystone is that 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs could be attributed to the pipeline. Smitherman appears to have made a factual blunder by citing 20,0000 construction jobs, rather than a total of 20,000 jobs from construction and manufacturing.

Those estimates come from Ray Perryman, an economist who hires out his services to corporations and industry associations. Perryman’s analysis for Keystone has been ridiculed not just for the 20,000 figure but also his finding that the pipeline will indirectly create 250,000 permanent jobs. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations called Perryman’s analysis “dead wrong” and his methodology “opaque.” An independent analysis by the Cornell University Global Labor Institute found that the pipeline would “create no more than 2,500-4,650 temporary direct construction jobs for two years according to TransCanada’s own data supplied to the State Department.”

Of course it’s beyond dispute that constructing a 1,700-mile pipeline will mean work for some people. The difficult question is, at what cost? Smitherman never wrestles with that question.

3) Truthiness: The Republicans Bear No Blame

Smitherman:

Finally, there are those who say the tight permitting timeline of the decision on Keystone XL is what caused its demise. That’s simply untrue. The first applications for Keystone XL were submitted in 2008, with 2011 being the expected permit issuance date. As recently as April 2011, the State Department issued a press release saying they expected “a decision on whether to grant or deny the permit before the end of 2011.” It was only after environmentalists joined with Occupy Wall Street protesters and held a circle around the White House that the president made a political choice to try to delay the decision until after the 2012 elections. Congress instead gave the president a two-month extension to the evaluation deadline, which forced the president to show his hand before the November election.

This is a bit of a straw man. The argument is that the Republicans wrecked Keystone, albeit probably just temporarily so, by inserting the abrupt two-month deadline into an unrelated, must-pass bill. The congressional Republicans did so despite warnings from the White House that Obama would respond by rejecting the pipeline permit. Smitherman fails to mention that there was no definite pipeline route to accept or reject. Nebraskans, including the Republican governor, had forced TransCanada to agree to move the route far away from the ecologically-sensitive Sandhills region.

That’s not to say that events leading up to the Obama-Congress tussle didn’t play a factor. They did. Indeed, one hopes and thinks that the summertime arrest of over 1,200 citizens at the White House opposed to Keystone (what Smitherman condescendingly refers to as “[holding] a circle” had some impact on Obama’s decision. Still, if your only interest is getting Keystone approved expeditiously, which I assume is Smitherman’s position, then you might question whether it was wise for the Republicans to force Obama’s hand. On the other hand, if you share the GOP’s appetite for creating situations in which Obama can look like a job-killing socialist, well, that’s a different story…

4) Sin of Omission: Smitherman Shrugs Off Environmental/Climate Concerns

Smitherman’s only nod to the staggering ecological and climate consequences of strip-mining the Canadian boreal forest for tar sands oil, filling vast pits with toxic tailings, and sending the carbon-intensive remainder 1,700 miles through a pipeline, owned by a company with one major pipeline disaster already on its record, a pipeline that would pass through and over aquifer, dell, forest, stream, river and creek to be refined in Texas so that the final products can be sold into a global market?

The environmentalists who opposed this project either aren’t very smart or they aren’t being honest. They should want that oil to be refined in the United States, where we have strong environmental regulations. Instead, the oil will now likely go to China, where environmental regulations are practically nonexistent, and where permitting consists of bribing the right Communist Party official.

Smitherman’s point doesn’t lack for a certain cynical realpolitik. It’s possible that Canada could still auction its tar sands off to another bidder, China perhaps. The conservative government has said as much. But Smitherman fundamentally misunderstands the opposition to Keystone. There are myriad reasons folks from Alberta, Canada to Houston oppose the pipeline. Some are hyper-local — East Texas landowners, for example, who don’t want to sacrifice their property for a pipeline that might leak, or native people in Canada who are seeing their waters poisoned by toxic tailings. Others are global — outrage that North American fossil fuel addiction is putting the planet’s climate at risk.

Changing the route of the pipeline will bring relief to some of the folks with more “NIMBY”-type concerns but it will also breed new enemies. And selling off to China instead of the U.S. changes precisely nothing in terms of the impact to Canada and the planet’s climate. 

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.