ACANADIAN COMPANY’S application to build an oil pipeline between Alberta and the Gulf of Mexico has become the symbol of the fight against fossil fuels in America. In a public hearing last week, activists, some weeping, begged the State Department to oppose the plan. In the balance, they claimed, was nothing less than the global climate, America’s economy, even sensitive racial divisions. Mainstream environmental groups have enthusiastically embraced the cause. Passions can hardly be overstated: Twelve hundred people were arrested for protesting the pipeline in Washington over the summer.

The activists have the wrong target.

True, the petroleum that comes from Alberta’s “tar sands” isn’t very clean; it produces more carbon emissions than light sweet crude. And, true, pipelines can leak, as recent ruptures in Michigan and under the Yellowstone River demonstrate.

But rejecting the pipeline won’t reduce global carbon emissions or the risk of environmentally destructive spills.

Canada’s government — and rising world petroleum prices — guarantee that the country will extract the oil from its tar sands, and that Asia will take it if America doesn’t. That means using pipelines to transport Canada’s heavy crude hundreds of miles to the West Coast and then shipping it abroad, burning fossil fuels and risking ocean spills along the way. China already has a large stake in Canadian oil production. Plans are already in the works to build the necessary pipelines.

Critics fall back on the allegation that petroleum companies want to export much of the Canadian oil abroad after refining it in Gulf Coast facilities. With access to the world oil market, they can and should have that option. But if export markets are that attractive, Canadian crude will reach them without transiting the United States, and American refineries will get their low-grade crude from somewhere else. The bottom line remains: The more American refineries source their low-grade crude via pipeline from Canada and not from tankers out of the Middle East or Venezuela, the better, even if not every refined barrel stays in the country.

Producing energy is a dirty business, and it will remain so for a long time, even with the right policies. Part of facing this reality is admitting that how the world produces energy must change over time. But another part is accepting that oil production will continue for decades and clear-headedly managing the risks — not pretending we can wish them away.