The State Department is probably right to conclude, as it did Friday, that the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project would have a negligible effect on climate change. Even though the extraction of the oil would certainly cause significant pollution, Keystone XL would be only one of many dirty oil operations around the world. What's more, stopping the pipeline, which is expected to carry 83,000 barrels of oil each day 1,700 miles from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast, wouldn't stop the extraction. The only thing that would change is how the oil is transported.
The report is bad news for environmentalists, who had taken heart from President Obama's pledge last year to base his decision regarding Keystone XL on whether the pipeline would be a significant contributor to global warming. The report paves the way for his approval.
But approval would be premature at best. Running side by side with the State Department's largely rosy assessments have been continuing concerns by the Environmental Protection Agency that State is giving short shrift to some of the potential dangers -- especially leaks that could foul groundwater or wilderness areas. TransCanada, the company proposing to build the pipeline, has a bad record when it comes to pipeline spills, and the EPA has raised concerns not just about possible effects on groundwater but also about emissions at the refining end of the journey, in the Gulf. The oil does little if anything for U.S. energy security; gasoline consumption has been declining in the United States, and much of this oil would be for export in any case.
Obama should place heavy emphasis on what EPA scientists are telling him; these are the nation's top experts on the environment. And even if the Canadian tar sands extraction would not be, by itself, a devastating new source of greenhouse gases, the Keystone XL would be a sorry symbol of the world's continued reliance on fossil fuels. It would also be a reminder of the ongoing willingness of the U.S. to back long-term efforts to feed that dependence, whether by building a pipeline through the middle of the nation or by approving a risky oil-drilling project off the coast of Alaska (which Royal Dutch Shell PLC put on hold last week, at least for 2014, because of a pileup of legal and logistical obstacles).
If developed nations had started earlier to wean themselves off the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and had developed more of the technologies for renewable, low-pollution energy, oil pipelines and Arctic drilling rigs would hold little attraction for anyone.