12:38 PM EST, January 29, 2013
With the revised route for the Keystone XL pipeline having last week won approval from Nebraska's Republican governor, the geology of North America's most controversial energy project is clear: It has landed President Barack Obama between a rock and a hard place.
Having campaigned for an "all of the above" energy policy but also having announced that addressing climate change will be a top priority during his second term, President Obama must choose between enabling TransCanada's petroleum exports and preventing what climatologists fear will quickly provide a huge and disastrous new boost in greenhouse gases.
Still, the decision may not be so difficult if Mr. Obama sticks to one guiding principal: What is in the best interests of the United States — the jobs associated with construction of the multibillion-dollar project, or the risks posed by climate change and enabling greater global addiction to petroleum from a particularly troubling source?
On that basis, the risks far outweigh the rewards. The U.S. State Department should reject the project simply out of concern for the health, safety and security of U.S. citizens. Rising sea levels, severe storms, droughts and the risk posed to agriculture, and the potential for political disruption on a world scale all are associated with global warming.
And make no mistake, the Keystone pipeline is not just another incremental step in petroleum distribution. The crude oil would come from Canadian tar sands, the dirtiest possible source of petroleum, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service study. Burning tar sands oil is bad enough, but even extracting it is highly polluting.
It's all very well for political leaders to decry the excess carbon emissions that are slowly raising the temperature of this planet, but that trend won't reverse unless the line is drawn somewhere. Surely, a project like Keystone — which is not even expected to help U.S. consumers by reducing domestic gasoline or heating oil prices — is a reasonable place to start.
Of course, such a choice is going to raise quite a hue and cry from the petroleum industry and its friends in Congress. But it's amusing to note that many of those same companies are not shy in raising the climate-change issue when it comes to promoting domestic natural gas, which burns far cleaner than coal.
Other critics will play the "E" cards and rail against the president for not putting the economy and energy independence first. Yet how much good Keystone does either is doubtful, particularly if enabling (if not expanding) global dependence on oil greatly harms this nation's growing green energy producers.
Don't want to rely on oil from the Middle East and other less-than-dependable sources? The country has already ratcheted down that reliance in recent years, and the secret is to both increase U.S. drilling where appropriate and to burn less oil, either through conservation (such as requiring greater energy efficiency) or by expanding use of renewable energy.
Climate change is not some far-off, theoretical threat. It's effects are real and already being felt. Has anyone noticed this week's stunningly volatile weather pattern? Experts say we can expect a lot more of that — along with disastrous weather like superstorm Sandy, which is already costing the country tens of billions of dollars. That experience alone should have taught Congress what is at stake in the climate change debate.
The fact that there continue to be so many climate change deniers in the Republican-controlled House simply underscores the need for President Obama to take action when and where he can. The Keystone decision is his administration's alone, and politics ought not enter a decision-making process that should be governed by science and the facts.
Will he take some heat? Absolutely, but if the president's committed to pushing for controversial remedies to climate change like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade law, he will have a tough time explaining how he could have first approved a project like Keystone that is so harmful to the environment. Besides, polls show the public wants action on climate change, and that could help Democrats in 2014. Mr. Obama put off the Keystone decision last year and won re-election handily, a sign that TransCanada doesn't drive public opinion in this country now or in 2014.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun