First, Biden’s reversal of the cross-border permits for the pipeline kicks off a regulatory onslaught on the petroleum industry’s value chain, with unprecedented breadth, assertiveness and tangible investment impacts. Though this reversal won’t damage the oil industry much, and it isn’t absolutely essential to American oil right now, there are long-term consequences to this decision.
When oil prices next boom (and trust me, they will), investors will resume interest in pipeline projects and whoever is in the White House may regret Keystone XL’s cancellation because the United States will have to rely more on less stable trading partners for oil.
In short, Keystone XL is the start of something big. Research by my firm Rapidan Energy Group found forthcoming Biden administration regulations will lower US oil production by 1 million barrels per day by 2023 relative to a second Trump term trajectory.
Keystone XL is widely viewed as uneconomic because Canada currently enjoys more pipeline capacity than it needs, and with oil demand on track to peak soon, expensive resources from places like Canada will not be needed. But complacency will last only until the next inevitable boom cycle in oil prices.
Contrary to popular belief, diminishing demand for oil won’t keep oil prices low forever. And even if demand starts peaking soon, supply outside the Middle East will likely fall faster than demand slows. This will likely cause the United States to become more dependent on lower-cost Middle East producers. As oil production in the Middle East rises, the buffer those producers keep — called spare capacity — will go down. The lower their spare capacity, the higher oil prices spike when geopolitical disruptions occur.
Alberta’s heavy and sulfurous grade of crude oil is prized by complex refiners in the US Gulf Coast and the Indo-Pacific. After Keystone XL’s cancellation, Canada will ship more heavy crude to Asia, where it gets a higher price, as a result of being far away from heavy crude suppliers, and less to US refiners, who will buy more from Mexico, Venezuela and the Middle East. This doesn’t matter much economically, but it is a major national security concern as Canada is a much more stable and friendly partner than others.
Of course, energy wonks know oil is widely traded and globally priced, so no country is protected from price volatility. But history repeatedly shows that Washington goes into crisis mode and wonkery goes out the window fast when pump prices rise. So when the cost of oil heads back to $100 amid rising dependence on the Arabian Gulf, Biden’s day one cancellation of a significant pipeline from our largest source of energy imports will be viewed as a much more controversial step than it is today.