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Keystone Kops

Environmentalists picked the wrong battle in opposing the Keystone XL project.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The polarizing debate about whether the United States should issue a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pipe crude from oil sands near Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, is an almost surreal lesson in issue-framing. The pipeline has become a political football in an election season: Republicans have used it as a cudgel to paint President Barack Obama as a job-killer, while the White House hails it as a rare victory for environmentalists at a time when much of its climate change agenda has stalled.

The political point-scoring has only served to obscure the issues raised by Keystone XL. Oil is likely to be in short supply in the coming years, given the turmoil in the Middle East. Therefore, U.S. environmentalists are unlikely to be able to stop Canada — which, ironically, has a far more proactive greenhouse gas management policy than the United States — from finding buyers and transportation for its secure and readily available oil, no matter how much pollution it may create.

Because it crosses international borders, Keystone XL needs a presidential permit from the U.S. State Department to move forward. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially indicated that such approval would be forthcoming, but a political uproar from environmentalists delayed the decision. Congressional Republicans inserted a provision in a tax bill giving the administration a Feb. 21 deadline to make a decision, but on Jan. 18 Obama gave the pipeline a thumbs-down, saying that the deadline made it impossible to adequately assess the pipeline’s environmental impact. The saga continued on Jan. 30, as 44 senators signed their names to a new bill that would green-light the pipeline, bypassing the president.

As Keystone XL has been transformed into an election issue, both sides have shifted their line of attack. Republicans have largely abandoned the claim that Canada’s oil is important for U.S. energy security, preferring to slam the president for dumping a plan that they say would have created 20,000 American jobs. Primary contender Newt Gingrich has assailed the president for his "utterly irrational" policy, which would "kill American jobs, weaken American energy, [and] make us more vulnerable to the Iranians."

Environmental groups have also switched their messaging. They originally criticized the line for carrying crude from oil sands, which require higher carbon emissions and large-scale water demands to produce than conventional oil. However, after an oil pipeline leak in North Dakota, environmentalists pressed the White House to consider the risk that leaks would pollute the locally important freshwater Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.

Beneath the bombast, both sides should learn important lessons from this clash. The oil industry should learn that one cannot steamroll over clean-water concerns by pithily pointing out that tens of thousands of miles of existing energy pipelines already traverse the Ogallala Aquifer. Engaging the public is going to be critical for other energy producers seeking licenses to operate, as Shell’s successful bid to drill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea indicates. The international major has said that it has paid $350 million for two ice-breaking disaster-preparedness ships to respond to any potential accident as part of the $4 billion it has already spent on the process.

But there is also a lesson for Americans who care about the environment: Vital infrastructure is not a good choice for a political litmus test. America’s energy future is inextricably linked with its northern neighbor. Canada is the largest crude oil exporter to the United States, supplying 22 percent of imports, and its production is expected to increase by 1 million to 2 million barrels a day over the next decade. That’s in sharp contrast with Mexico, the next-largest U.S. supplier at 11 percent, which is facing steep production declines and could become a net oil importer over the next decade, according to a study published last year by the Baker Institute.

As oil supplies from the Middle East look increasingly tenuous, the United States has an obvious national interest in cultivating imports from its neighbors. What’s more, it is unlikely — given sky-high demand for crude — that secure oil found in these locales will remain unproduced. If Keystone is ultimately denied a permit, chances are the oil will move by train or truck, creating even more greenhouse gases and chances of industrial accidents than a pipeline. A study last August prepared by EnSys Energy and Navigistics Consulting for the departments of Energy and State argues that rail capacity for 500,000 to 1 million barrels per day of crude coming into the United States appears available today and that rail could increase capacity by at least 1.25 million barrels per day by 2030.

So while the United States needs to take its environmental management seriously, environmental supporters also need to choose their battles wisely. A tremendous effort went into blocking the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of weaning the United States off oil. But in fact, all that effort likely won’t block the actual oil — it will just find different ways to reach the U.S. market.

The only way to decrease U.S. reliance on oil is to lobby for policies that help consumers need less of it. That will require more fuel-efficient cars and public transportation, tighter environmental building standards, higher numbers of natural gas- or electric-powered fleets, and even — perish the thought — higher taxes on oil use. What does not help is political mudslinging over the Keystone XL pipeline, which only serves to distract from the real issues.

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