Explaining the Keystone XL pipeline rejection: a Historical Institutionalist analysis.

By Stuart Smith

In November 2015, Barack Obama, rejected the proposal to build an extension to a pipeline which would facilitate tar sand oil exports from Canada to southern USA. The pipeline would offer little economic advantage for the US and would cause little environmental damage, yet the debate was intense and the decision historical – mainly due to its symbolic significance. This makes it an interesting case, as certain approaches of historical/social scientific analysis would struggle to explain the outcome.

I believe the approach of Steinmo (2008), Historical Institutionalism, is particularly useful here. It takes the institutional change at hand and places it into the historical context of the time. On the merits and cons of the proposal alone, Obama would most likely not even have become involved in the decision. However, some unusual factors which would only be revealed through historical context, can explain the outcome:

  1. The environmental movement in the US had made it the posterchild of the climate change movement (even though this pipeline on its own would only add 0.01% to US emissions).
  2. Obama and Joe Biden are nearing the end of their terms and would like to leave a legacy but also have less fear of using their full collective power on issues they consider important.
  3. Obama was one month away from beginning climate change talks at the COP21 summit in Paris, and would be expected to lead on the international stage

The most important institution which was utilised by Obama was the presidential veto, which allowed him to reject the proposal based on his personal judgement. This means there is an element of self-interest which has to be considered, and HI allows for this. It also allows for informal, exogenous pressure on the president from the international community.

So a combination of having the institutional framework, the context of an upcoming summit, a winding-up presidency, and a desire to be remembered led to this decision. Many approaches would fail to produce a convincing narrative without accounting for such a diverse group of factors, demonstrating the usefulness of Steinmo's work.