August 13, 2011

TO ANY ENVIRONMENTALLY conscious American, building the Keystone XL oil pipeline doesn’t sound like a great deal: a new pipeline that would transport dirty tar sands crude from Canada, over the Great Plains and to the Gulf Coast. Why would America “double down” on Canadian oil, when it takes more water and energy — which means more pollution — to extract? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will decide before the end of the year whether to approve the project, has to answer that question.

Here’s what she should say: Even if the U.S. government adopts stringent policies to cut oil use, the United States will be dependent on crude for decades. Oil demand across the world, meanwhile, is rising, which applies upward pressure on prices — and makes it economical to extract oil from Canada’s tar sands. Canada will produce its oil. We will burn a lot of it, no matter what, because there’s still spare capacity in existing U.S.-Canada pipelines. But when Canada produces more oil than it can send south, the Canadians won’t just leave it in the ground; they will ship it elsewhere. And America won’t be kept from importing and refining more low-grade crude oil; the United States will just get it from the Middle East, the Energy Department has concluded.

Considering geography, exporting oil from Canada to a non-American market doesn’t sound easy; Canada’s tar sands are close to the U.S. border, but not much else. So we asked John Baird — Canada’s new foreign minister, who was in Washington recently to speak with Ms. Clinton — which nations would buy oil that America decided not to take. His answer was quick and unequivocal: the Chinese. New pipeline infrastructure will transport oil between the tar sands and Canada’s west coast, from which tankers can ship it across the Pacific Ocean. And, even now, Chinese firms are buying stakes in Canadian tar sands.

Tar sands crude is not appealing; it is low-grade, it is hard to extract, it is difficult to refine and it produces a lot of carbon emissions. But if it is to be burned anyway, there’s little reason for America to reject it, as long as Keystone XL can transport it across the plains safely. Ms. Clinton should focus on ensuring that, not attempt to deny the dirty realities of American oil dependence.