When progressives talk of government, it is in an alluring can-do spirit. Making the case for more spending, President Barack Obama invokes the 19th century as a heroic age that built government-supported railroads. MSNBC hosts pose in front of monumental 20th-century public-works projects and speak of what all of us can do together.
This is all well and good as nostalgia, but is utterly detached from the spirit and the practices of 21st-century government. We don't excel at building things. We excel at studying things, and putting up obstacles to building them. We delay, cavil, and sue. We protest and micromanage. It is not the age of the engineer but of the bureaucrat, the lawyer, and the environmental activist.
Consider the proposed Keystone pipeline to connect the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, with the Gulf Coast. The Obama administration has been happy to keep the nation's foremost shovel-ready project in a state of suspended animation for years, so it can be constantly studied toward no end whatsoever except placating people with a theological objection to pipelines.
For a taste of the 21st-century American attitude toward building things, I direct your attention to Volume 2 — not Volume 1, 3, or 4 — of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, not to be confused with the three prior environmental studies, including one in August 2011 that was erroneously called the Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Therein is a section considering the pipeline's impact on endangered and potentially endangered animals and plants. It evaluates the effect on everything from the Sprague's Pipit to the blowout penstemon, although special attention is devoted to the American burying beetle. Just like your congressman, the beetle is a "federally protected invertebrate."
It lives in a handful of counties to be traversed by the pipeline in Nebraska and South Dakota. Its habitat could be disrupted. It could be hit by trucks. If the pipeline heats the ground, beetles burrowed into the soil for the winter could be fooled into emerging prematurely. Artificial lighting could expose it to increased predation.
Not to worry. Keystone has been in discussions with federal and state officials about minimizing the impact. Prior to construction, the beetles should be trapped and relocated, in keeping, of course, with the Nebraska American Burying Beetle Trapping Protocol. But not in South Dakota. "Trapping and relocating American burying beetles," the statement explains, "is not authorized in South Dakota."
Vegetation should be mowed to no more than 8 inches tall to render the affected areas temporarily unsuitable to the beetles. Carcasses should be removed, lest beetles return to eat. Lighting should be shielded to avoid attracting beetles. Signs at access points to the project should be identified as American burying beetle habitat.
All workers should be trained in beetle protection and issued "a full color Endangered Species Card, which includes a picture of the American burying beetle and a summary of relevant conservation information."
This is the case of only one insect glancingly affected by one project, but it stands for an epoch of red tape and hostility to development.
Keystone's real problem is that it has run afoul of environmental activists who believe that if they can stop it, they will prevent Canada from utilizing its so-called tar sands and therefore save the planet from more carbon emissions. But Canada is going to make the most of the stupendous resource represented by the tar sands regardless. The latest environmental statement says the project will cause "no substantial change in global greenhouse emissions."
The betting now is that the Obama administration will eventually greenlight the pipeline. If it does get built, it probably won't be in operation until 2016, when the original completion date was 2012.
Reuters columnist Robert Campbell points out that Keystone is on pace to equal or surpass the Trans-Alaska pipeline in its slow pace of construction, even though the Alaska project was a much more complicated proposition. We get ever more adept at the perverse art of not building things.
Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and a variety of other publications. Read more reports from Rich Lowry — Click Here Now.