12:48 PM EDT, October 17, 2011
Much of the country has probably paid scant attention to the debate over the 1,700-mile pipeline known as Keystone XL, which is proposed to connect Alberta, Canada, with Texas refineries. But in Washington, State Department review of the $7 billion project has become a messy affair, and the Obama administration is clearly torn over whether to support or reject it.
On the one side are jobs, potentially thousands of them, tied to the construction of the pipeline, as well as the prospect of tapping Canada's tar sands to help meet America's energy needs. Relying more on a friendly neighbor and less on government-controlled oil reserves in the Middle East or elsewhere would seem to boost U.S. energy security.
But Keystone XL would come at a huge cost. The proposed pipeline route would cross the Sandhills wetlands of Nebraska and put at risk the sprawling Ogallala Aquifer, the source of drinking water for much of the Midwest. That would make the pipeline a particularly tempting target for terrorism, as a spill could have dire consequences for the environment.
The debate gives rise to any number of other issues, ranging from the influence of a TransCanada lobbyist, a former deputy campaign director to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2008, to the possibility of a widespread use of eminent domain to acquire the necessary property for the pipeline to cross eight states.
But the bottom line in any consideration of the project should be this: Would Keystone XL, on balance, serve the interests of future generations of Americans? By that simple and straightforward standard, the pipeline fails miserably and should be rejected by President Barack Obama and the State Department.
That's because Keystone XL would truly devastate efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and lessen the impact of climate change. The burning of Canada's oil sands would produce a vast quantity of carbon dioxide and other potentially harmful gases; tar sands produce an estimated one-fifth more such byproduct than even conventional petroleum reserves.
Blocking Keystone XL might not prevent the Canadians from tapping the tar sands, but a strong U.S. stand might persuade the country to reconsider its actions. Canada has in the past pledged to cap its greenhouse gas emissions (including as a signatory to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol), but such accords have lacked any serious enforcement mechanism. The lack of U.S. leadership on global warming has been one of the roadblocks to that end.
Build Keystone XL, and there might be a short-term benefit — but at what long-term cost? It would surely accelerate the worst effects of climate change, which could result in rising sea levels, droughts, loss of freshwater reserves, an increased number of weather-related disasters, greater prevalence of disease and famine, political turmoil, and the deaths of millions. That's simply too steep a price, all of which would be paid by future generations.
Among political conservatives, it has become fashionable to talk of U.S. debt in terms of the sacrifice it will force on our children and grandchildren. The deficit may be costly, but it pales next to the ways climate change will redefine their lives. Those who believe man-made global warming an uncertainty are only hiding behind junk science and wishful thinking.
One of the bigger mistakes of President Obama's term was his failure to take on energy and climate change as a higher priority when he first took office. But blocking Keystone XL now would at least ensure that the U.S. was no willing party to the self-destructive policy of burning every trace of oil available on the planet — no matter how it might poison the atmosphere — before fully embracing renewable forms of energy.
On at least one point, there can be no disagreement: Tar sands or no, the world's oil supply is finite. Better to stand behind green energy policies sooner than later.
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