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The Keystone delay [Editorial]

Last week's announcement by the U.S. State Department that a decision over the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline will be delayed pending a legal challenge in Nebraska was a prudent step that was also politically convenient for President Barack Obama and certain incumbent Senate Democrats. But whether politics or pragmatism motivated the choice, it was still the correct one, and it doesn't necessarily alter the project's timeline.

The notion that ground might be broken for the Keystone this summer was, pardon the expression, a pipe dream anyway. Nebraska's highest court isn't expected to hear a lawsuit brought by landowners against the project until September at the earliest. A ruling is likely to take months after that. And if that decision results in an altered route for the pipeline or a drawn-out review by the state's public service commission, then all bets are off anyway.

Obviously, the White House and incumbents like Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Keystone supporter who faces a serious GOP challenge this fall, benefit by keeping the project alive. At stake is nothing less than Democrats' hopes of maintaining a majority in her chamber. But that's assuming Mr. Obama is inclined to nix the project, and that isn't clear at all. The State Department's environmental impact statement released in January suggested the pipeline was unlikely to alter the rate of extraction of oil from Canada's tar sands, a finding that caused U.S. environmental groups to howl in protest.

We share many of those misgivings. It's difficult to believe the $5.4 billion project would not accelerate exploitation of the tar sands and by doing so greatly increase production of greenhouse gases. That's simply the nature of tar sands extraction. And to ignore the impact on climate change is folly — a point underscored by a recent United Nations report that suggested time is running short to reduce the worst impacts of global warming.

Meanwhile, the benefits of Keystone are modest, at best. It's certainly good for TransCanada and its investors, but it's also expected to raise prices for Canadian crude oil, which isn't necessarily beneficial to U.S. consumers. One expert recently found that it may translate into a 10-20 cent per gallon increase in prices at the pump in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states as more Canadian oil is sold abroad instead of closer to home.

But the impact on prices is the wrong way to evaluate Keystone. As it happens, Tuesday is Earth Day, the one day a year during which nations around the world are supposed to celebrate the planet and commit to its preservation. Climate change ought to be at the center of those commemorations; it's certainly the greatest environmental threat facing mankind.

A pipeline that lowers crude oil transportation costs — particularly at a time when there isn't a carbon tax to reduce the economic incentive to burn fossil fuels — is problematic. We can't just sit idly by while we continue to invest more and more of our limited resources into accelerating global production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse while ignoring the consequences of such self-destructive behavior.

There are, admittedly, other ways to tap the tar sands. Canada may yet move forward with an east-west pipeline to move crude oil from Alberta to one of its own coastal ports. (There are competing multi-billion-dollar plans to link to either the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.) Shipping oil by rail is also possible, although recent rail accidents and spills — including particularly bad ones that caused fires in North Dakota and Quebec last year — have raised new questions about safety.

Meanwhile, Republicans and other Keystone supporters should spare us their cries about how President Obama could have approved Keystone despite the Nebraska legal challenge. The project couldn't have moved forward anyway and can only benefit from any additional scrutiny. Keystone's benefits have been greatly exaggerated, particularly the notion that it would somehow lead to U.S. energy independence.

What this country needs much more than another oil pipeline is a rational energy policy that places a higher priority on renewable forms of energy, conservation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Keystone would appear unhelpful to all three goals. Further delays to adopting that long-term energy strategy are what Americans ought to really be hopped up about — before, during and after the mid-term elections.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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