President Obama has not only handed Secretary of State John Kerry the final say-so about the Keystone XL Pipeline. He has also provided the former senator with an unequaled opportunity to build a national consensus around his decision and about climate change.
Sure, the Secretary could huddle with experts, outside of the public eye, and announce a decision.
But, that would be throwing away the opportunity of a generation.
The former senator knows something about committee hearings. He chaired scores of them and attended hundreds of others in his long tenure. Most of them were useless and boring. Dare one say that all of them were abused by senators who often were more interested in consuming their 5' of question time with their own statement.
There is nothing, however, that prohibits the State Department from conducting open hearings on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Secretary Kerry could chair the hearings, and there would not be pompous posturing senators with whom he had to contend. He could enlist others from the State Department, from other government agencies, or even outsiders like an oil industry official, and an environmental expert to be on the panel.
He could invite interested parties to testify, including proponents of the pipeline, oil and environmental experts, the Canadian oil officials who want the pipeline. And, instead of making the hearings a testimony Q&A, he--or other panel members--could get the witnesses to engage in real dialogue with the panel and with one another.
It is difficult to imagine that these meetings would not be covered by the press. They would be unique with respect to policy-setting and an excellent example of transparency [and, one cannot help but comment, a total departure from Dick Cheney's secret oil meetings].
The meetings could be civil (at least if no senators or members of Congress were invited). Facts, statistics and conclusions could be challenged in open session.
It is at least arguable that one of the problems with climate change as an issue is that it has never been engaged nationally with anything by charges hurled back and forth. We know Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. We know the oil companies pretend they care about it, but fund organizations whose purpose is to undermine rational discussion.
State Department hearings on Keystone would provide an unparalleled opportunity for a national discussion that no presidential speech or congressional hearing or election debate can begin to achieve.
The American people would be treated to an example of how policy-making should be conducted.
The ball is in Secretary Kerry's court.