Opinion writer

President Obama slammed Republicans fixated on the Keystone XL pipeline in his Tuesday State of the Union Address. “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” he declared to standing applause from Democrats in the chamber. But instead of clapping, his fellow Democrats should have thought through what their president was actually saying.

There was a sharp double edge in Obama’s words. If Republicans have distorted the Keystone XL’s economic significance and played politics with the approval process, Democrats have decided to take a high-profile stand against one mere oil pipeline. Just as Republicans continued to make misleading claims about the jobs that would be associated with the project, environmental activists and their allies in Congress continued to attack the pipeline after the State Department concluded that it wouldn’t have disastrous ecological effects. Even before the pipeline became a major cause for the GOP, environmentalists made what should have been an everyday infrastructure decision into an existential fight.

There are, indeed, much higher goals on which environmentalists should set their sights, goals that are far more important than winning a largely symbolic battle on “a single oil pipeline.” One is defending the president’s Environmental Protection Agency regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Another is making the case for going beyond the EPA, establishing better, market-based climate policy that only Congress can pass, such as a carbon tax or a carbon cap. Achieving either goal depends on how the climate debate develops in the 2016 presidential election — and probably on who wins next year. Hard-line anti-Keystone XL activism doesn’t educate people about what really needs to happen, nor does it endear environmentalists to the broader public. Activists should channel their time and resources into making the case for real climate policy.

I don’t know if Obama meant for his words to have a subversive implication. My guess is that he has long resented being stuck between an environmentalist base demanding rejection and analysts who don’t see what the fuss is about, and that he wishes the activists would move on to something more productive. Without the environmentalist pressure, the president probably would have approved Keystone XL years ago. If only he had, the nation might already be past this interminable national psychodrama.