Warren Buffett and the Keystone Decision

When President Obama announced he was killing the Keystone XL pipeline, he said he was agreeing with the State Department’s assessment that the pipeline from Canada “would not serve the national interests of the United States.” The fact is that it would not have benefitted the personal financial interests of friend and economic mentor, Warren Buffett, who can rest assured that oil from Canada and the nearby Bakken formation in North Dakota will continue to be transported by a railroad he owns. As Investor’s Business Daily noted in a 2011 editorial:

Killing the Keystone XL pipeline may help one of the world's richest men get richer. North Dakota's booming oil fields will now grow more dependent on a railroad the president's economic guru just bought….

As oil production ramps up in the Bakken fields of North Dakota, plans to use the pipeline to transport it have been dashed.

As a result, North Dakota's booming oil producers will have to rely even more on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, which Buffett just bought, to ship it to refineries.

Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has agreed to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe in a deal valuing the railroad at $34 billion. Berkshire Hathaway already owns about 22% of Burlington Northern, and will pay $100 a share in cash and stock for the rest of the company.

When President Obama was first running for office, he publicly declared that Warren Buffet was his prime source for economic advice. As CNBC noted in July 2008:

Barack Obama calls on Warren Buffett, among others, as he turns his attention to the troubled U.S. economy now that he's returned from his international tour that featured a well-attended speech in Berlin.

In an interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC's Meet the Press over the weekend, Obama said that today he would be "pulling together" some of his "core economic advisers" to "examine the policies that we've already put forward--a middle class tax cut, a second round of stimulus, a effort to shore up the housing market in addition to the bill that was already passed through Congress, what we need to do in terms of energy and infrastructure."

President Obama would soon launch an endless review process that would kick the Keystone oil can down the road until he was ready to kill it, a non-suspicious interval of time having elapsed after economic mentor Warren Buffet

would buy the railroad that would replace Keystone XL. So how did Buffett do on his investment and did he profit from buddy Obama’s delaying and then killing the pipeline? Some would say handsomely. As Forbes reported last year:

His company, Berkshire Hathaway, purchased Burlington Northern Santa Fe for $34 billion four years ago. FORBES estimates its value has doubled since then. Part of the reason: hauling oil out of the Bakken formation of North Dakota.

Doubling a $34 billion investment in just four years is huge. Warren Buffett is a respected investor but it doesn’t hurt to have the ear of the President as he kills off your competition in oil transport. As Investor’s Business Daily editorialized in January:

Keystone XL would bring up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day and directly create 20,000 truly shovel-ready jobs. And it would carry not only Canadian oil, but also oil from the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota.

Even if it carried only Canadian oil to foreign markets, it and the Gulf Coast refineries that would process the oil would be operated not by robots but by American workers. Would President Obama rather live in a world dependent on oil from North America or on oil from the Middle East and OPEC?

President Obama says these would only be temporary jobs. But so are the infrastructure jobs he favors. Building a bridge creates jobs, but are they “temporary” because the bridge will eventually be completed? The workers will simply move on to the next project. So will the Keystone workers, particularly if we remove the restrictions on and animus toward fossil fuel development?

How could it not benefit our national economic and security interest? With a proposed linkup with the booming production in North Dakota, North American energy independence would be assured. If we also lifted the ban on exporting crude, the geopolitical stage would experience a seismic shift felt from Riyadh to Moscow as North American crude and liquefied natural gas offered countries a source immune from Middle East eruptions.

Sure, gasoline prices have fallen, but largely due to another technology President Obama and his environmentalist base opposed, also for alleged environmental reasons – hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. When they go up again, and they will, wouldn’t it be nice to keep our petrodollars here at home? Just why is it that President Obama wants Iranian crude on the world market, but not American?

If Warren Buffett is shedding any tears over the demise of Keystone XL, he’s crying all the way to the bank.

Daniel John Sobieski is a free lance writer whose pieces have appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, Human Events, Reason Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times among other publications.               

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