President Obama may not decide the fate of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline until the summer. Yet a draft analysis released last week by the State Department offers a valuable dose of perspective, steering away from the hyperbole of supporters and opponents. The report conveys that whether the project moves forward or not, the impact on climate change and the country’s energy security would be negligible.
How can that be, the arguments so fiercely pitched from both sides? The analysis explains that the Canadian tar sands, from which oil is extracted, will be developed with or without a pipeline connecting to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The thinking reflects one of the hard realities in combating climate change: For a long time, and without a technological breakthrough, national economies will continue to burn coal and oil.
Environmental groups cite a defining moment, the president rejecting the pipeline, sending a strong signal that countries must move away from fossil fuels. Such leadership is essential in coming to grips with the challenge. Yet there are more productive ways to act, investing much more heavily in energy research, establishing a carbon tax or pressing aggressively for a global regimen to reduce greenhouse gases.
Too difficult to achieve? The relative ease in rejecting the construction of a 2,000-mile pipeline points to the symbolism and little more at work.
Proponents argue the pipeline would reduce our reliance on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for energy. They cite the thousands of jobs that would be created. Yet most of those positions would be temporary, part of building the pipeline, and they represent a fraction of the jobs created in just one month. More, the report argues that minus the pipeline, the country still could meet its energy priorities and needs. New domestic sources, especially natural gas, are available. Our reliance on foreign oil has declined from 60 percent to 45 percent since 2005 (with roughly one-third imported from Canada).
What, then, should drive the White House decision-making? The State Department will issue a final environmental report and then a separate analysis concerning the pipeline and the national interest. Worth particular, if often overlooked, emphasis in weighing what to do is this country’s close relationship with Canada, a key trading partner, energy supplier and diplomatic ally.
Canada places high priority on the pipeline, arguing, reasonably, better to get energy from a trusted friend. If the decisive factors aren’t energy security, jobs or climate change, as the State Department report makes plain, then relations with Canada gain in significance, enough even to tip the scale in favor of the Keystone pipeline.