May 1, 2012

THE CASE FOR ultimately approving the Keystone XL pipeline — always strong — has grown stronger.

A key environmentalist argument against Keystone XL has been that the project would encourage the extraction of bitumen, a particularly dirty oil-like substance, from the “oil sands” in Alberta. If activists could “shut in” Canadian bitumen, limiting the ability of oil companies to sell the product, they argued, perhaps petroleum firms wouldn’t be able to fully develop the oil sands.

That hope always was unrealistic, and a recent announcement from Kinder Morgan, another pipeline company, illustrates why. The firm wants to nearly triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and Vancouver — a route from the oil sands to the world market — enabling it to carry even more product than the Keystone XL would. From there, much of it would probably head to Asia. Because the pipeline exists, expanding it may not face the same regulatory hurdles — particularly opposition from native groups — that other proposals to run new pipelines to Canada’s west coast have encountered.

There is already enough spare pipeline capacity running out of the oil sands to accommodate increasing production for much of this decade, a government report concluded in 2010. While Kinder Morgan’s expansion certainly wouldn’t sate all the future demand for pipeline capacity, it would add more time before the environmentalists’ strategy could seriously impact production. And it demonstrates a critical point: Even if environmentalists manage to stop one pipeline or another, given high world oil prices, the enthusiastic support of the Canadian government, the many transport options and the years available to develop infrastructure, it’s beyond quixotic to believe that enough of the affordable paths out will be blocked. Environmentalists might succeed, however, in relocating some construction jobs outside the United States.

So President Obama’s refusal so far to authorize Keystone XL has little rational basis. On the other hand, the Republican response hardly represents an ideal of policymaking, either. GOP lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to amend bills to mandate the approval of Keystone XL, attaching such a provision to a transportation bill they passed last month.

Attracting foreign investment in projects that will create U.S. jobs requires predictable regulatory procedures. The way to encourage the efficient extraction and delivery of the oil that the United States will require for decades is to make clear that government won’t use the issue as a political football. Both sides have given investors reason to worry during the Keystone XL fight.