Former Obama USGS chief offers a pragmatic view of the Keystone XL pipeline

Hughey Newsome Advisory Council, Project 21
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Secretary of State John Kerry believes that mankind is responsible for climate change, yet his department isn’t willing to demonize the Keystone XL pipeline like the environmental lobby does.

Kerry’s staff recently released their long-awaited “final” environmental assessment on the pipeline, finding it would not significantly affect “greenhouse gas” emissions.

This should be a boost to pipeline proponents, but the greens still have the ear of the White House. There’s still a long road ahead before the issue is finally settled.

Intended to transport heavy crude oil extracted from Canada’s oil sands regions to refineries along America’s Gulf Coast, the Keystone XL pipeline would create American jobs and bring more energy to America from a friendly neighbor.

There is no expected change in environmental impact because — Keystone or not — that oil is coming out of the ground. The question is who’s going to get it.

But some environmentalists view the Keystone XL pipeline as a symbolic fight against global warming. For them, the pipeline symbolizes everything wrong with the fossil fuels they say causes climate change. Defeating it has become a rallying cry for green groups.

While the scientific debate over climate change continues to rage, one thing about the pipeline cannot be questioned: Not building a pipeline would not keep the oil from being extracted.

The market for oil is driven by global supply and demand. If the total cost of extracting and delivering the oil is less than the sales price, it will be extracted. It can be transported by pipeline, rail, or truck. Both of the latter are riskier, tougher to monitor, and release far more greenhouse gas.

This notion was driven home not only by the State Department report, but also by Dr. Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science and former head of the U.S. Geological Survey. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, she explained why she now supports the Keystone XL pipeline, stating, “Just because there hasn’t been a pipeline really did not stop the development of the Canadian tar sands.” She further noted the pipeline is “not only the cleanest [option], but potentially safer because the pipeline is still to be permitted, environmentalists can demand the pipeline be the safest ever engineered.”

Dr. McNutt called herself a “pragmatist.” In other words, she accepts reality and chooses to operate within it.

The debate over the fate of the oil sands doesn’t involve just Canada and the United States. Oil is traded globally, so it’s a global issue.

The Canadian government already signaled they could support sending the carbon-rich oil to Canada’s west coast for shipment to China. This could result in even more greenhouse gas emissions since China’s environmental laws are lax compared to the United States. A 2012 article in the New York Law Journal described how regulations “are not implemented well or do not have teeth. Furthermore, “[m]any laws express goals rather than mandates; none have citizen suit provisions like most U.S. environmental statutes.”

Given this scenario, it stands to reason that a pragmatic environmentalist would want support the Keystone XL pipeline so this oil could be used and regulated in America.

This debate about the Keystone XL pipeline is not about carbon emissions. It’s a debate over reality.

The oil from Canada’s oil sands will be extracted and delivered to market. This can be done via rail, truck, and eventually ship, to a destination in China — adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Or it could be done with a pipeline, at a lower environmental cost.

This oil, which has more carbon content than traditional crude oils, can be refined in the United States under American environmental regulations. Or it could be refined in China — which has a mostly undeveloped approach to environmental regulation.

President Obama should accept these realities and approve the Keystone XL pipeline sooner rather than later.