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Keystone XL: The wrong question

The Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's tar sands would have pros and cons, but foes would do better to shift their focus to the larger environmental issues.

October 06, 2011

The question of whether to build an oil pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas is turning out to be one of the most important political decisions of the year for the Obama administration. It's an agonizing choice because the costs and benefits of building it are so closely balanced; opponents have overstated the environmental risks, and proponents seem oblivious to the consequences of continuing to feed our nation's oil addiction.

The Keystone XL pipeline would run 1,700 miles and cost $7 billion, generating thousands of construction jobs. It would increase oil imports from a stable, friendly neighbor while decreasing U.S. reliance on more volatile (and sometimes hostile) OPEC regimes. What's more, pipelines are the safest way to transport oil.

Yet the tar sands are an environmental monstrosity. To extract the tar-like crude from the sand and clay in which it's embedded, steam must be injected underground to liquefy the oil before pumping it to the surface. Thus it requires a great deal of energy to produce energy, heightening emissions of greenhouse gases. Residents of Nebraska and other states through which the pipeline would pass, meanwhile, fret about the risk of a leak that might contaminate water supplies.

These arguments are compelling but not entirely persuasive. An environmental study by the State Department, which is charged with approving the pipeline because it crosses the national border, found that the "life-cycle" emissions from wellhead to gas tanks would be about 17% higher than the average of oil consumed in the U.S., but also pointed out that the nation already imports oil that is nearly as filthy, including Venezuelan heavy crude. Moreover, if the pipeline isn't built, the tar sands won't simply go away — TransCanada, the company proposing to build the line, would most likely build one to Canada's west coast and sell the oil to China. And although minor spills are common with pipelines, the oil very seldom migrates far from the spill site, and TransCanada has agreed to safeguards that exceed U.S. requirements.

What's most aggravating about this decision is that the government shouldn't have to be making it; by now, both the U.S. and Canada should have approved carbon-reduction measures that would make extracting tar sands oil economically unfeasible. In the absence of such action, some argue that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should reject the pipeline as a signal that the U.S. aims to end its oil addiction. They have a point, but it would be a fairly empty gesture that would fail to reduce U.S. reliance on imports from such countries as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia while doing little to limit global emissions. Environmental activists would do better to lobby for carbon controls — the only practical way to cut fossil-fuel use — than against Keystone XL.

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