The Importance of Being Decisive

When I worked in Scotland, one of my managers was a wise Englishman named Graham Walker. As with many people whose paths I have crossed in my life, some nuggets of wisdom were transferred from Graham into my long-term memory. One of the things that stuck with me was Graham’s push for decisiveness. He would tell me “Just make a decision and move on. We have a business to run here.” Graham would say that most of the time the decisions would prove to be correct, and when they weren’t we would live with them or correct them down the road. (And of course if a person frequently makes incorrect decisions, then they can be replaced with someone who makes better decisions). But his point was that you can’t live in fear of making the wrong decision, because then nothing gets done.

This is a lesson President Obama could take to heart with respect to the Keystone XL Pipeline. Faced with a difficult decision over whether to approve the pipeline, what did the Obama Administration do? Defer the decision until after the election:

The move is the latest in a series of administration decisions pushing back thorny environmental matters beyond next November’s presidential election to try to avoid the heat from opposing interests — business lobbies or environmental and health advocates — and to find a political middle ground. Mr. Obama delayed a review of the nation’s smog standard until 2013, pushed back offshore oil lease sales in the Arctic until at least 2015 and blocked issuance of new regulations for coal ash from power plants.

Of all the ways I would characterize this decision, “courageous” is not an adjective that comes to mind. Yet in an e-mail that I received just after the decision was announced, the decision was praised by some as courageous:

WASHINGTON (November 10, 2011) – Here are statements from Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; and Robert Redford, an NRDC Trustee, following the Obama administration’s announcement of a delay in the Keystone XL pipeline:

Frances Beinecke: “President Obama is displaying leadership and courage in putting the interests of the American people before those of Big Oil. He has taken another significant step in the fight against climate change and in our march toward a clean energy future, which will mean healthier lives for all. The president’s decision also means that our property, water and agricultural lands cannot be stripped from us without a fight.”

Robert Redford: “This is American democracy at its best: a President who listens to the voice of the people and shows the courage to do what’s right for the country. Thank you, Mr. President, for standing up to Big Oil. Thank you for standing up for us all.”

Two Options; Choose One

Leadership and courage? Surely you jest. President Obama could have made a courageous decision here. In fact, he had two options, either of which would have taken courage. They were:

Option 1 – The President could have announced the following: I have made the decision today to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal. I campaigned on the issues of the pressing threat of climate change and continued dependence on fossil fuels. Allowing the Keystone Pipeline to bring Canada’s oil sands to U.S. refineries would move the U.S. in a direction opposite to my campaign promises. The people who elected me into office have made their voices heard, and they do not want policies in place that encourage expansion of the oil sands.

Now that would be a courageous decision. President Obama would be taking a stand that is consistent with the beliefs of those who put him in office, and he would be telling his opponents that the principles he campaigned upon are more important than facing their criticisms over his decision.

Or, it would have been courageous had he taken the opposite stance:

Option 2 – The President could have announced: The United States is a country that is still heavily dependent upon oil for our transportation needs. The Department of Energy estimates that oil will continue to provide the bulk of our transportation fuel for decades to come. The U.S. will continue to rely on oil imports for a large portion of our needs, and it is important that those imports come from friendly, stable countries. I have therefore decided to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal, ensuring stable supplies for years to come. In addition, in this very difficult economic environment, the pipeline will create high-paying jobs that are desperately needed. I realize that my supporters are disappointed in this decision, but I don’t believe rejecting the pipeline will prevent the continued development of the oil sands. In fact, it is quite possible that the oil sands would end up being exported to China, and the U.S. would have to import oil from distant countries to replace oil that we could have sourced from Canada. Thus, rejecting the pipeline posed a very real risk of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

That would be a courageous decision because it would force President Obama to tell some of his staunchest supporters that he believes that job creation and energy security concerns take precedence over their environmental concerns.

Conclusions

Was this a courageous decision by the Obama Administration? Absolutely not. It was the politically expedient decision, which in my view is the source of some of the biggest problems the world faces. We have political leaders who will not make courageous decisions. They debate and defer and try to make everyone happy. Instead, they should sometimes say “This is truly in the best interest of the U.S.” The Obama Administration could have taken this decision either way and made that statement, but instead they failed to make the tough decision because they fear political fallout.

In a follow-up to this column, I will explain which side I come down on — and why.