Although the Senate and the House are facing off over legislation that would extend the payroll tax cut, it now seems certain that any compromise will contain a provision -- one staunchly insisted upon by Republicans in both chambers -- that President Obama make a decision on the long-disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline within 60 days.
The nominal reason offered by supporters of the provision is that the project would create jobs -- roughly 20,000 of them, according to the number most often used these days.
But that number, like so much else attending the Keystone XL project, has been a matter of intense debate, and it's difficult to imagine that the real motive behind the 60-day provision is anything but partisan gamesmanship. It is at least as partisan as the Obama administration's own decision early last month to postpone any ruling on the proposed pipeline until early 2013 -- which just so happened to be after next year's presidential contest.
Republicans, of course, weren't about to let Obama dodge the divisive issue, and attaching the Keystone provision to a payroll tax deal, however incongruous, forces the administration to render a decision that, whether thumbs-up or thumbs-down, will anger one of two key voting blocks: environmentalists, who staunchly oppose the pipeline, or labor unions, which largely support it.
To recap, the Keystone XL pipeline project, first proposed more than three years ago, would deliver heavy crude from a vast oil patch in Alberta to refineries and ports on the Texas Gulf Coast. The oil resource itself -- a viscous mix of sand, rock and hydrocarbons known as "oil sands," or more pejoratively "tar sands" -- is irksome to environmentalists for a variety of reasons, from the destructive strip mining needed to extract the goop, to the vast amounts of water, energy and greenhouse gas emissions that accompany its processing into useable fuel.
They also worry about leaks anywhere along the length of the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline, which would enter the United States in Montana and cross five other states on its path to the Gulf.
Pipeline backers insist that the environmental risks have been both over-studied and are, in the end, overblown. Not everyone agrees. As the oil market goes, it's certainly true that moving oil by pipeline is, statistically speaking, far less prone to disaster than moving it by other means -- say, by rail or ship. But the company behind the project, TransCanada, has already accumulated a troubling inventory of squirts and dribbles on a separate leg of what it calls the Keystone network. And a year of more epic spills at pipelines operated by other companies has shined a light on the nation's lax oversight of pipeline safety -- a problem that has yet to be resolved.
But even if one were to accept the environmental concerns as inflated, the windfall of jobs that backers say Keystone XL would create remains at least a commensurate fiction -- and arguably a greater one.
In recent weeks, both TransCanada and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been suggesting that the project would create 20,000 jobs, including 13,000 in construction and another 7,000 in manufacturing. In the heated run-up to an end-of-year decision on the pipeline by the State Department, which must approve infrastructure projects that cross the U.S. border, the job estimates being thrown about projected numbers still higher, some absurd in their optimism.
Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the project would create 100,000 jobs back in August. In September, TransCanada had the number approaching 140,000. On other occasions, the company suggested the project could create 250,000 jobs.
Some news reports have even put the number of jobs as high as 500,000.
The upper echelons of these estimates derive from murky modeling that attempts to estimate the number of indirect jobs that the pipeline might create -- everything from additional short-order cooks and waitstaff at restaurants that would presumably need to feed an army of construction workers up and down the American heartland, to even more speculative jobs arising from, well, just having more oil around.
After The Huffington Post and other news outlets scrutinized those numbers, both TransCanada and the project's supporters began bringing them back down to earth. "The president needs to quit campaigning," declared Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, as efforts to attach the Keystone provision to the payroll tax extension gained steam last week. "He needs to get back and start governing, and stop blocking the Keystone pipeline. It's 20,000 jobs -- immediate jobs."
But even that's not really true. The 13,000 construction jobs, for example, are really "person years of employment" -- a bit of economic modeling jargon that simply means one person employed for one year. Under that scenario, which is laid out rather plainly in the study commissioned by TransCanada but is frequently mischaracterized, a single laborer working for two years to build the Keystone XL pipeline would be counted twice.
So it was that the State Department, in its analysis of the project, estimated that its construction would create only between 5,000 and 6,000 jobs -- over three years.
Construction work being what it is, those jobs would also evaporate as soon as the thing was built.
A widely-cited independent study from Cornell University suggested that the actual number of jobs was likely even lower than the State Departement estimate -- and that the potential ancillary impacts of the pipeline, from higher fuel prices in some states to the inevitable costs of spills and other environmental damage, could result in a net loss of jobs.
That may itself be an exaggeration, but all of this number-crunching is really beside the point. The Keystone XL tug-of-war is not really about putting Americans back to work any more than it's about averting environmental Armageddon. The jobs would be negligible and the environmental risks are more or less on par with the thousands of pipelines, trucks, trains and tanker ships already feeding the nation's staggering thirst for oil -- which sits at nearly 20 million barrels a day, or roughly a quarter of the daily world total.
This debate pits rich and powerful fossil fuel interests, which, for both good and ill, have shaped and dominated the last century of American economic, industrial and political life, against a growing swell of citizens who insist that it's high time -- for the sake of the planet and everyone who breathes -- to turn the page and support cleaner alternatives.
Both sides have drawn a line on this one, and that line is Keystone.