Keystone XL: America Passes The Oil To China?

Keystone XL is a divisive issue among President Barack Obama's voting base.

Like former University of North Carolina Head Basketball Coach Dean Smith, another famous on-the-sly smoker, President Barack Obama ran out the clock on an important game.

Coach Smith devised the “four corners” offense as a way to maintain possession of the ball late in a game his team led. By stationing players at each of the four corners that define the offensive side of the court and quickly passing the ball around the perimeter, Smith hoped to draw out a desperate defense, exposing gaps that could be penetrated for easy layups or forcing the opposition to commit fouls, sending Tar Heels to the free throw line to add to their lead.

Obama’s current situation can hardly be described as a “lead,” though “incumbency” is probably worth much more than any snapshot poll this far out in the 2012 game. But his “players” — left-leaning interest groups critical to get-out-the-vote efforts — aren’t of the same mind on Keystone XL, and he could not afford to offend environmentalists opposed to anything that encourages the use of fossil fuels.

So this $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline project won’t be settled on matters of policy. It will be settled according to politics, and Obama has decided that Keystone XL must go away until after his re-election campaign climaxes.

Because the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canada border, standard procedure was designed to culminate with a final decision by the U.S. State Department. But in Foggy Bottom, too, are new impediments lurking that serve the President’s electoral interest.

Spurious allegations of conflict of interest by the consulting firm that prepared an environmental impact study for the State Department prompted a group of U.S. Senators to write a letter.

TransCanada, acting as instructed by the State Department and in accordance with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) third-party contractor practice, upon which the Department of State practice is modeled, issued a request for proposal in late 2008 for the Department of State that led to the hiring of Cardno ENTRIX, a unit of Australia-based Cardno Ltd (ASX: CDD, OTC: COLDF). This is the same third-party selection process that has been used on a regular basis for many years by FERC, which processes certificate applications for interstate natural gas pipelines.

TransCanada screened the contractors who responded to the request for proposal for technical ability, experience and appropriate personnel, and recommended a number of qualified candidates to the State Department — standard practice for selecting a third-party contractor to carry out a review under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

There are a limited number of firms that specialize in this type of work, Cardno ENTRIX among them. As the permit applicant, TransCanada is handed the bill for the work that the State Department directs Cardno ENTRIX to carry out for this part of its review. The work is done at the sole direction of the State Department; TransCanada had no say in directing that work.

It is not in Cardno’s interest to submit compromised work. To believe Cardno Entrix is in the tank for TransCanada is to believe it, its managers and its shareholders don’t care about its business. “Conflict of interest” is a red herring.

As for the fact that a former lesser light in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign now lobbies for TransCanada, undoing a massive infrastructure project that will employ many people on the U.S. side of the border because of the well-known revolving door between public and private in Washington, D.C., is the equivalent of selective prosecution.

At any rate, Paul Elliott did not have the kind of role in the Clinton campaign that would even afford him access — forget influence — on any kind of decision made at the State Department. The emails he exchanged with an equally diligent but unknown official at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, Canada, are irrelevant, too.

Let’s concede that TransCanada’s forecast of the number of jobs that will be created by construction and operation of Keystone XL is rosy. Nevertheless, if not 20,000 direct jobs, then certainly more than one will be created. For a President leading a party that a little more than two years ago spoke of the importance of “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects to jump-starting the economy, shutting down a privately funded $7 billion project should be political suicide. It’s this reality, as well as the pain of close to 10 percent unemployment, that had American unions lined up in favor of the pipeline.

Opposition at the local level is overstated. This is not a monolithic coalition out to stop all manner of oil exploration and development. Nebraskans, Democrats and Republicans are interested only in protecting the Ogallala Aquifer. Had the original footprint of XL followed the existing path of the Keystone Pipeline System, I wouldn’t have written this.

And then there are those who fear and oppose any exploitation of fossil fuels. They are right to point out risks of environmental damage from a potential leak in the pipeline and warn of resulting cleanup costs. As much as Greens want the era of fossil fuels to end, we seem still to be short of alternatives capable of providing, for example, reliable baseload electricity or constant access to transportation fuel.

Any attempt to speed up the arrival of the day when we finally transition from petroleum-based fuels will bring extra costs that will have disproportionately large impacts as you move down the socioeconomic scale. Keystone XL would help reconcile the price disparity between U.S.-focused, cheaper West Texas Intermediate crude oil and global-oriented, more expensive lately Brent crude and, theoretically, result in incrementally higher gas prices. This is a short-term concern. Over the long-term, facilitating the development of a local resource under friendly political control is in the best interests of consumers and the United States.

The long-term, big-picture concern also includes the fact that the oil sands will be processed, regardless of what happens with Keystone XL. And crude from the play will undoubtedly end up traversing the U.S.-Canada border and making its way to Midwest and Gulf Coast refineries.

Keystone XL’s 700,000 barrel-per-day capacity would relieve the buildup of crude in the Midwest, which doesn’t have enough pipelines to ship Canadian output to Gulf Coast refineries. And Canada’s oil sands output would also help relieve a crunch U.S. Gulf Coast refineries will face when Venezuelan crude supply contracts expire in 2014.

Whether Keystone XL is built, interest will continue to grow in exporting Canadian energy to Asia. The company pushing this forward is Enbridge Inc. (TSX: ENB, NYSE: ENB) — with the backing of Chinese investors. Its key project is a proposed $5.5 billion pipeline to bring 525,000 barrels of oil from the oil sands to the Pacific Coast for shipment to refineries in California and Asia.

There are still opponents, largely on environmental grounds. And it’s far from a sure thing Northern Gateway will be built. But the process will be far less complicated.

Obama may have doomed Keystone XL. But whether the pipeline and the President survive, demand for crude from Canada’s oil sands will continue. If America passes on Canadian oil sands altogether, it’s easy to identify the likely beneficiaries: China and India.

(This article originally appeared in Investing Daily.)

–David Dittman

Personal Liberty

Dr. David Eifrig Jr.

is the editor of two of Stansberry's best advisory services. One of his advisories, Retirement Millionaire, is a monthly letter showing readers how to live a millionaire lifestyle on less than you'd imagine possible. He travels around the U.S. looking for bargains, deals and great investment ideas. Already his average reader has saved $2,793 since 2008 (documented in each Retirement Millionaire issue). He also writes Retirement Trader, a bi-monthly advisory that explains simple techniques to make large, but very safe, gains in the stock and bond markets. This is a pure finance play and the reason Porter Stansberry loves having "Doc" on the team. Doc holds an MBA from Kellogg and has worked in arbitrage and trading groups with major Wall Street investment banks (Goldman Sachs). In 1995, he retired from the "Street," went to UNC-Chapel Hill for medical school and became an ophthalmologist. Now, in his latest "retirement," he joined Stansberry & Associates full-time to share with readers his experiences and ideas.

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