Opinion: Energy: Activists wring blood from a Keystone

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Don’t believe anybody who tells you today’s decision by President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline was about protecting the environment or destroying American jobs. It was about politics, pure and simple -- and that goes not just for Obama, but the environmentalists, conservatives and fossil-fuel interests that have been using the issue to press their agendas, and are likely to keep flogging that horse through November.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts over this pipeline, it would have had a tiny impact on either the economy or the environment. With all due respect to NASA scientist James Hansen, who is still one of the nation’s most prescient thinkers when it comes to climate change, he was badly off-base when he claimed that if Keystone were built it would be ‘game over’ in the fight against global warming. That’s because failing to build the pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on Texas’ Gulf Coast, won’t make the tar sands go away, and probably won’t even do much to slow their development.


Tar sands oil is only slightly dirtier than the crude we’re already burning, and if the Canadians can’t sell it easily in the U.S. they’ll just ship it to China. In other words, trying to stop or even slow the consumption of dirty, carbon-intense fossil fuels by attacking their distribution sources is a waste of time, because producers will just find other distribution sources or customers. Environmental activists would have been far better off fighting for a carbon-pricing scheme rather than fighting against Keystone XL, which is a symptom of the carbon problem but not a cause.

And with all due respect to my colleague Paul Whitefield, who sees the Costa Concordia cruise-ship sinking as a reminder that pipelines such as Keystone can fail, the recent maritime disaster actually points to the opposite conclusion. Yes, pipelines do leak, but spills from pipelines tend to be small and easily contained, unlike spills from oil tankers such as the Exxon Valdez. From an environmental standpoint, it’s better to get the stuff from Canada via pipeline than Venezuela via tanker.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are just as deluded about Keystone. As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Michael Levi points out in the Washington Post, the oil industry’s claims that the project would produce 250,000 jobs are a fantasy, and the notion that it would significantly reduce global oil prices is nonsensical. There would be some minor economic benefits from building the thing, but nothing game-changing.

The real story of Keystone is the scoring of political points. Congressional Republicans think they put a few on the board when they attached a rider to the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut that forced the Obama administration to either approve or reject the pipeline by Feb. 21. That wasn’t enough time to complete environmental and safety reviews of the project, which cuts through sensitive water tables in Nebraska and other states. So President Obama was left with little choice but to reject it, thus giving the GOP new ammunition for its claims that Obama’s extremist environmental policies are destroying American jobs. Obama, meanwhile, gets to at least shore up support among his base, who for some reason see the Keystone fight as being far more significant than it really is.

The good news is, nothing has really been resolved when it comes to Keystone. Pipeline developer TransCanada can still reapply for a permit, and no doubt it will do so when the heat from this year’s election season has dissipated. As for the political fallout, Obama did the right thing for the country by waiting until all the studies of potential risks and environmental impacts are completed; whether he did the right thing for his reelection chances will be clearer later.



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--Dan Turner