The Obama administration’s decision to delay approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project in the Midwest at least until 2013 is a graphic illustration of everything that’s wrong with the interplay among the U.S. government, electoral politics, business and activist groups. In a nutshell, the system is in paralysis.

The pipeline represented an opportunity for U.S. refiners to tap the vast bounty in Canada’s oil sands. It also would have served as a safe, efficient, economical means of transporting crude oil from the newly booming oil-shale fields in the American West. After three years of analysis, the State Department had concluded the pipeline, eventually stretching from Alberta, Canada, to Houston, would be environmentally safe.

Then the Obama administration stepped in for two obvious reasons: First, it didn’t want to offend its green constituency; and second, it was worried about losing electoral votes and congressional seats in those states, notably Nebraska, that seemed to oppose the project.

Opponents say the pipeline poses risks to the Ogallala aquifer, already depleted by years of overuse in America’s breadbasket.

Well, yes, it does pose risks, and even TransCanada’s decision to move the pipeline away from a particularly vulnerable part of the aquifer in Nebraska’s Sand Hills is no guarantee against groundwater contamination elsewhere. It’s possible a terrorist bomb, construction accident, earthquake, tornado, prairie fire or meteorite strike could cause the pipeline to leak or even rupture. But pipelines leak all over the world. African pipelines are notorious for springing leaks, as desperately poor people exploit small breaches, turning them into human and environmental disasters. In September, gasoline from a pipeline that had been cut open by people trying to steal fuel exploded, killing an estimated 75 people in Kenya.

In fact, every kind of energy production, whether it’s a nuclear power plant in the face of a tsunami, a solar- energy installation that covers and thereby destroys a desert habitat, a wind farm that kills birds by the thousand, an ethanol industry that compels farmers to destroy rain forests to produce sugar cane, or an oil pipeline or tanker that springs a leak, comes with a degree of short- and long-term risk to individual human lives and to the environment. And no amount of study or politically motivated delaying tactics will change that.

For President Obama, the delay carries a very real risk of producing apathy and even resistance from one important corner of his base: Big Labor. The decision puts thousands of jobs on hold for union pipe fitters, welders, truckers, heavy-equipment operators, unskilled laborers and other bluecollar tradesmen. And that’s just the immediate victims; people in the service industries — hotel and motel employees, food-service workers, barbers, pharmacists and countless others — also will notice the dearth of new job opportunities. Many of them will vote in their own self-interest by pulling the lever for a Republican presidential candidate who promises to fasttrack the Keystone project, rather than the Democrat who stymied it.

Obama and his Democrats may think they can buy off this huge cohort with enhanced welfare benefits — free money from the government — with the expectation the bill won’t come due until sometime after Nov. 6, 2012. The America we know — or believe we know — will refuse to be bought.

— The Republican American

(Waterbury, Conn.)