One could see President Trump’s handling of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline as one of several early tests of his supposed negotiating prowess: could he get a foreign corporation wanting to build an oil pipeline across America to use American steel for the pipe? Forget possible legal hurdles, forget costs—just focus on that core question: can President Trump stick to his guns? Can he keep his repeated promises to the American people and American workers?
Last night we learned that the answer is no.
In a bizarre statement from an unidentified White House spokesperson, President Trump’s administration clarified that his much touted U.S. steel requirement for new pipelines doesn’t apply to Keystone XL because it “is currently in the process of being constructed, so it does not count as a new, retrofitted, repaired or expanded pipeline.” If this statement isn’t an outright lie—Keystone XL is certainly not under construction in the United States—it’s a strange position to take. It means that the Trump White House sees work done by TransCanada up in Alberta, Canada five years ago, as a reason not to keep its promises to the American people. It also means that while President Trump touts how great his action on Keystone XL is for the U.S. steel industry, his administration is totally okay with the fact that much of the steel used to build Keystone XL will be from Russian, Indian, and Italian sources.
Or maybe they mixed up Keystone XL with the Dakota Access project? Who knows?
What we do know is that President Trump has been milking his U.S. steel requirement repeatedly. Here he is, in his own words, over the past week:
- He told CEO’s from the U.S. steel industry on February 23: “And you're going to be doing pipelines now . . . We put you heavy into the pipeline business because we approved . . . the Keystone pipeline . . . but they have to buy . . . steel made in this country and pipelines made in this country."
- He told the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 24: “We have authorized the construction . . . of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. . . . I said, who makes the pipes for the pipeline? Well, sir, it comes from all over the world, isn't that wonderful? I said, nope, it comes from the United States or we're not building one. . . . American steel.”
- He told Congress in his address to a joint session on February 28: “We have cleared the way for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines –thereby creating tens of thousands of jobs—and I've issued a new directive that new American pipelines be made with American steel.” [And note: those jobs numbers aren’t right either.]
Politico postulates that last statement demonstrates a shift that gets President Trump out of his U.S. steel promise. But if that’s true, it probably also means that his “new directive” lacks any meaning at all—it’s just an empty promise to his political base who won’t check back in to see whether all those new steel jobs happened or not. After all, he brings it up in relation to those two pipelines every time he talks about it—but if it doesn’t apply to either one, then what does it apply to?
While it clearly doesn’t apply to the Dakota Access Pipeline—that was 90% complete before he even took office—it now apparently doesn’t apply to Keystone XL either. And Keystone XL seems like a prime example of the type of project this "directive" should to: an unpermitted, unbuilt pipeline that would cross three U.S. states. It begs the further question of how many other "new" pipelines out there would fit the administration's new definition of "under construction" they appear to have applied to Keystone XL to get out of their "buy American steel" policy.
But maybe the problem for the administration is that they just got outmaneuvered by TransCanada? The company has been playing hardball with the President in the last two weeks, and it now appears that they’ve won. Two weeks ago, they stated that they weren’t dropping their $15 billion NAFTA suit against U.S. taxpayers, despite President Trump’s pro-Keystone XL overtures. Then, one week later, it turned out the TransCanada and the United States had reached some sort of agreement, whereby the company would “suspend” its case until after a decision on the pipeline is due on March 27. That sounds a lot like a bribe—approve our pipeline the way we want it and we’ll make this case go away. With this latest statement out of the White House, it looks like TransCanada has out-negotiated the master negotiator. President Trump has thrown his promises to American workers under the bus and caved to a foreign corporation seeking to move foreign tar sands oil across our country for export to overseas markets.
Fortunately for Americans, even if President Trump ends up approving the project by March 27, huge obstacles remain in the way of its construction. In addition, since the President resurrected the dead project, Americans have woken up to what a bad deal it is for Americans, with a majority—48% opposed vs. 42% in favor—now opposing the project. And, most importantly, Keystone XL remains an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen: a risk to our shared global climate, our precious fresh water sources, and our farms and ranches across America’s heartland.