IF FOOT-DRAGGING were a competitive sport, President Obama and his administration would be world champions for their performance in delaying the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Last Friday afternoon, the time when officials make announcements they hope no one will notice, the State Department declared that it is putting off a decision on Keystone XL indefinitely — or at least, it seems, well past November’s midterm elections. This time, the excuse is litigation in Nebraska over the proposed route, because that might lead to a change in the project that various federal agencies will want to consider. The State Department might even decide to substantially restart the environmental review process. This is yet another laughable reason to delay a project that the federal government has been scrutinizing for more than five years.
At this point, there is little doubt about the big picture. After two thorough environmental analyses, State Department experts determined that the pipeline’s impact probably would be minimal, even on climate change-inducing carbon dioxide emissions. The economic rewards of extracting Canadian oil are too attractive and the options for getting it out of the country are too numerous. We would rather see Canadian crude traveling a well-built, well-regulated pipeline in the United States than on the rail cars, barges and ocean tankers that will move it until cheaper options inevitably come online.
That does not mean we like burning dirty oil sands crude. But symbolic gestures will have no impact on climate change. Governments should steadily reduce global carbon dioxide emissions with smart, economy-wide policies such as carbon taxes, which meaningfully and permanently cut demand for carbon-heavy fuels. Alberta’s provincial government, which oversees much of Canada’s oil development, is considering enhancements to its fairly weak carbon price system, which could redress some of the excess emissions associated with pulling the viscous oil out of the ground.
If activists want to make a real difference on carbon dioxide emissions, they should devote their energies to establishing an ambitious carbon price across Canada and in the United States — or, if that’s not achievable, any number of second-best but serious policy options. In a comprehensive and efficient system, it might well make economic sense to burn some Canadian crude for quite a while as the world slowly transitions away.
As for the pipeline’s routing, planners and regulators have already considered all sorts of options through Nebraska, and they already shifted the route once. Neither route posed environmental concerns of a sort that would justify concluding that Keystone XL is outside the national interest. It is bizarre to imagine that a new route from an even more careful process in Nebraska would significantly increase environmental concerns.
The administration’s latest decision is not responsible; it is embarrassing. The United States continues to insult its Canadian allies by holding up what should have been a routine permitting decision amid a funhouse-mirror environmental debate that got way out of hand. The president should end this national psychodrama now, bow to reason, approve the pipeline and go do something more productive for the climate.