Environmentalists have made the Keystone XL Pipeline project a litmus test for President Barack Obama and anyone else with an opinion on climate change.
Approve this dirty project, they argue, and you can’t possibly be with us. The Keystone XL is a symbol, they say.
But here’s the thing: Obama has to deal with the world as it is, not the world that he or his supporters in the green movement desire.
The president should approve the pipeline. Doing so is not inconsistent with his values or his desire to reduce carbon emissions as long as his administration continues to aggressively push for alternative energy.
The long march toward a decision on the Keystone project took a big step forward last week after a State Department report concluded that the pipeline would not substantially worsen carbon pollution.
The rationale: Oil in the Alberta, Canada, tar sands will be extracted whether the pipeline is built or not. It’s only a matter of how it is transported. If it is not moved by pipeline, then it will be moved by rail, which may well be more dangerous.
The United States needs to move deliberately toward alternative sources of energy, and the federal government must take the lead by supporting emerging technologies and providing dollars for research. But the U.S. and the world remain oil dependent. While that must change, such massive shifts in energy mix take time. In the meantime, the world benefits from oil produced by friendly, democratic nations such as Canada, which reduces its dependence on unstable regimes in the Middle East. The pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Because this is a transnational project, Secretary of State John Kerry is next in line to decide. He will make a recommendation to Obama. But in the end, this is Obama’s call.
Provided Obama is convinced that the pipeline can be built and operated safely, there is no reason to say no. And there are reasons to say yes.
The pipeline project would strengthen relations with Canada, and it would create nearly 2,000 construction jobs in Kansas, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota. It also creates about 50 full-time jobs in the U.S. once in operation.
The pipeline has become an important political symbol for opponents, but the State Department report makes clear that its actual impact on the environment is very limited. The report concludes that while the process for extracting the oil from the tar sands produces about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional oil, that oil will come to market in any case.
“At the end of the day, there’s a consensus among most energy experts that the oil will get shipped to market no matter what,” Robert McNally, an energy consultant who was a senior energy and economic adviser to President George W. Bush, told The New York Times. “It’s less important than I think it was perceived to be a year ago, both politically and on oil markets.”
We agree. Of much greater consequence is another decision on climate change that Obama is expected to make soon. He is moving ahead with a set of Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could freeze construction of new coal-fired power plants and close others.
While he needs to consider the potential economic impact of such a decision on an industrial state such as Wisconsin, we generally support tougher regulation of the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country.
The Keystone XL Pipeline may be a powerful symbol for environmentalists, but other decisions likely will have far greater impact. Obama has to deal with reality – and reality in an oil-dependent world says approve the pipeline.