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Column: Take the Politics Out of the Keystone Pipeline

Upon the latest exasperating delay of the Keystone XL pipeline project, our union — the Laborers’ International Union of North America — suggested that the Obama administration grow a set of antlers or take a lesson from Popeye and eat some spinach.

After all, the evidence points to federal approval of the pipeline. After nearly six years of delay, thousands of pages of research, five environmental impact statements confirming the evidence and millions of public comments, a pipeline that could put thousands of Americans to work and help ensure our nation’s energy security remains stalled.

The evidence is clear: It’s the politics that are tricky. And that’s where courage comes in.

No one seriously believes that the administration’s nearly-dark-of-night announcement on Good Friday, that the pipeline would again be delayed, was anything but politically motivated.

It’s not the one-person, one-vote politics that underpins the administration’s actions on Keystone. Public opinion surveys have consistently found strong majority support for the project, while not a single poll has shown majority opposition. Rather, the kind of politics the administration claims to disdain has taken control.

Enter Tom Steyer, the billion-dollar man. After long profiting off pipelines and coal, he began trying to save the planet in 2012. The hedge-fund manager and Wall Street tycoon seems to have gained the ears of White House officials and numerous Democrats across the country. He has pledged to pour $100 million into this year’s elections, with opposition to Keystone being his litmus test. Steyer has amplified the rhetoric of the environmental fringe aimed at tearing down the value of Americans who build things with their hands. The rhetoric has seeped into the White House discourse, with the president himself scoffing at the “temporary” jobs that pipeline construction creates.

It’s not completely surprising that a hedge-fund manager would fail to understand the kitchen-table economics of a pipeline or its value to working people. Or that construction work is, by nature, temporary and that millions of construction workers lead middle-class lives, own homes and put their children through college by moving from one union construction job to the next.

Unfortunately, the needless delays from the administration and the influence of those such as Steyer don’t just kill jobs: They also undermine the environmental movement. No one believes that halting Keystone would solve climate change. Thoughtful environmentalists agree that the only real solution is comprehensive climate change legislation in the United States and around the globe. This is the failure of environmental activists — they have tucked tail and abandoned the fight for real solutions and instead have resorted to project-by-project attacks on not only Keystone but also on natural gas and, even in many cases, on solar and wind. With the urging of the billion-dollar man, the White House seems to have moved solidly behind this hopeless crusade.

Although political decisions may not be easy, we believe the United States can still do great things, including construct great projects that advance our country’s place in the world. We believe we can do them smartly, safely and fairly for workers and local communities. But to do so, our country ultimately has to put sound policy ahead of politics. Despite efforts by an environmental fringe to hijack the mantle of progressivism or attempts by the far right to make Keystone a wedge issue, energy development is not a right-wing or a left-wing issue. It is critical to our country and to all of us.

By the time Keystone is built — we’re not giving up — we will have spent nearly as much time studying it as it took to build the Transcontinental Railroad 150 years ago.

If this foretells the future of U.S. energy security, we are in more trouble than even the Keystone debacle portends. A little courage from the administration would go a long way.

Terry O’Sullivan is general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.