WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's former national security adviser says rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline would be a gift to Vladimir Putin and a blow to the historic U.S. goal of energy independence.
James Jones delivered a staunch endorsement of the project on geostrategic grounds during a Senate hearing Thursday examining whether approving it would be in the U.S. national interest.
He said energy scarcity is a powerful weapon — as evidenced over the years in Iran and Venezuela, in Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and in Osama bin Laden's threats to attack energy infrastructure.
He said the latest example is Russia, where the threat of gas shortages and higher prices is wielded not only against Ukraine but also against European attempts to impose sanctions.
Jones said the U.S. has lost lives and enormous sums of money in foreign wars designed to secure the oil supply — and all of that can change thanks to the current spike in production within North America.
As long as his old administration colleagues let it happen.
"We cannot seize this incredible opportunity if we continue to say No to the infrastructure requirements necessary to develop and utilize these resources," Jones said.
"Why would the United States spend billions of dollars and place our military personnel at risk to ensure the flow of energy half a world away — but neglect an opportunity to enable the flow of energy in our very own backyard creating jobs, tax revenue and greater security?"
The retired marine served Obama for the first 20 months of his presidency. Since then, he has created a consulting company whose clients have included the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both supporters of Keystone.
Environmental groups alleged Jones failed to disclose those financial relationships before testifying Thursday. Jones Group International said in a statement that he is no longer a consultant to API, but consults the chamber on a broad range of economic issues.
As it stands, the U.S. won't actually stop importing oil anytime soon.
It's the suppliers who might change drastically.
Projections from the American Energy Information Administration suggest the U.S. will continue to import similar amounts of crude over the coming decades, with fluctuations below and above the 7.48 million barrels per day of 2013.
But thanks to an increase in output from Canada and the U.S. northwest, the supply routes appear to be undergoing an overhaul. The EIA foresees a significant drop in imports from virtually every region in the world — with one major exception: Canada, which would increase its exports to the U.S. by half, and account for just over half that country's overall imports, by 2040.
Imports from the Persian Gulf, meanwhile, would go from being comparable to Canada's to being barely one-quarter.
Jones warned that America's allies are watching the Keystone debate, and so are the world's bullies: "If we want to make Mr. Putin's day and strengthen his hand, we should reject Keystone."
The hearing was held with a decision expected within months by the Obama administration on whether to approve the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline. The administration declined to send a representative to the hearing, drawing complaints from Republicans.
There were signs this week of continuing opposition to the project.
A new poll suggests that while American support for Keystone remains in the majority, it has dropped considerably amid the debate. A former TransCanada Corp. employee, Evan Vokes, was invited on to a U.S. cable network to discuss the company's failure to comply with regulatory standards.
As for Jones's logic, it earned a scolding from one Democratic senator.
Barbara Boxer showed pictures of dark smoke from a refinery billowing over a playground and asked whether it would be in the national interest to have more children with asthma.
She said the health concerns about Canadian oil have been inexcusably absent from the debate, which has mostly been about climate change and jobs. Boxer cited evidence of higher cancer rates in one Alberta community near the oilsands.
"I think that issue has been swept under the rug," Boxer said. Project proponents, however, point to research arguing that there's actually no evidence that oilsands extraction is a cause of increased illness in the aboriginal community of Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey returned to the national-security issue, turning it against the company.
He said he will introduce a bill that would prevent oil from Keystone XL to be exported abroad. He said it makes no sense to export oil while young Americans die in wars over oil imports.
Another witness echoed the geostrategic argument from Jones.
She appeared in the process to be describing Canada as a good, or at the very least inoffensive, neighbour.
Karen Alderman Harbert of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce testified that: "I don't think we have to fear Canadian Mounties coming in to circle our bases like Russia is doing to Crimea."