One hard truth in devising a strategy to combat climate change is that Americans, and practically everyone else, must continue to burn oil and coal. Both carbon-based fuels are indispensable to a modern economy. The same goes for natural gas, another greenhouse gas producer, albeit at a reduced rate. The challenge is, how to move during the next few decades toward less reliance on these sources of energy.
That thinking is part of the environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline, released last week by the State Department. The report noted that oil from the tar sands of Alberta will likely get to the market, whether or not the pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast is built.
Build the pipeline, and the process of extracting and shipping the oil would pump an additional 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. As the Washington Post explained, that’s the equivalent of an extra 250,000 to 5.5 million cars on the road. Tar sands yield a heavier crude, requiring more energy to mine and process, emitting 17 percent more greenhouse gases than regular oil.
And if the pipeline is not built? Transporting the oil by rail or truck could increase overall transportation emissions by 28 percent to 42 percent, according to the report. Thus, the department analysis concluded that the 1,700-mile pipeline would not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.
In many ways, the debate over the Keystone pipeline has been overplayed by both supporters and opponents. For example, the report puts the number of construction jobs at 1,950, with 50 jobs to operate the completed the pipeline.
For environmental groups, the project has taken on an almost mythic status — as a place to make a defining statement about carbon-based fuels. The United States would do well to assert leadership in shaping a global strategy toward climate change. It would be most effective in taking a comprehensive approach, as the Obama White House is doing in moving to restrict emissions from coal-burning power plants and to increase the fuel-efficiency of cars and trucks.
Again, coal and oil will continue to drive economies. Their use would be restricted via the broader framework, one that includes nuclear power and far greater support for energy research and development. Finally, the pipeline must be weighed in the context of relations with Canada, a close neighbor and partner. This project is important to Canadians. What the State Department analysis reinforces is that Washington lacks sufficient reason to say no to them.