Thumbs down on Keystone

President Barack Obama's State Department is not going to issue a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline in its current form, and for this, even the project's most ardent supporters should be grateful. That includesTransCanada Corp. which was reportedly considering pulling its application for the pipeline to avoid further partisan bickering over the original route.

That such an enormously complex and environmentally sensitive project came down to a 60-day review was the result of political mischief-making by Republicans, who included the Feb. 21 deadline in the payroll tax extension signed into law last month. But if TransCanada is to reroute the pipeline (as company officials had already said they intend) and that route isn't even known yet, how could the State Department or White House have possibly endorsed it?

If Republicans had hoped to embarrass Mr. Obama with an election year "gotcha" — forcing him to choose between unions that support the Keystone project and environmental groups that oppose it — they made a serious miscalculation. The greater embarrassment is on the part of the GOP lawmakers who placed partisan gamesmanship ahead of the national interest.

The president had originally sought to push the timetable for a final decision until after the election in early 2013. If TransCanada now chooses to submit a new application — with an alternative route that bypasses the Sandhills of Nebraska — that may move the timetable even farther into the future. Those who are disappointed with that result can blame the political machinations of the GOP.

Keystone supporters insist that the $7 billion pipeline from Alberta to Texas would create as many as 20,000 (temporary) jobs and allow the U.S. to get more of its petroleum from a stable, democratic neighbor rather than less friendly regimes in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere. Of course, it would also have enabled TransCanada to get a better price for its oil than it does currently and thus would do little for Americans seeking lower prices at the pump.

But that's not the only cost to be weighed. Tapping Canada's tar sands is antithetical to sensible climate change policy. Not only would it promote further dependence on oil, but making matters worse is the inconvenient reality that extracting petroleum from tar sands releases substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions even before the first gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel is burned.

In its current form, the pipeline also threatened the Ogallala aquifer, the main source of drinking water in the upper Midwest. Even setting aside the tremendous ramifications raised by the massive pipeline on global climate change, the potential damage posed to Ogallala by a pipeline oil spill was an unacceptable risk to a critical U.S. resource.

Make no mistake, the Obama administration's choice to reject the TransCanada application — the only sensible one available under the peculiar circumstances — is not going to kill this controversial project. The appetite for oil in the U.S. and elsewhere is too great to assume that it will never be extracted from Canadian tar sands.

But at least it means there will be an opportunity for a sensible and complete review of whatever comes next. As the blather surrounding the Republican primaries has already demonstrated, serious debate over important public policy is hard to come by in presidential election years.

Of course, this won't keep Mitt Romney and others for bashing President Obama for doing the responsible thing and falsely portraying the decision as anti-jobs and anti-American. But at least that reveals what little regard such detractors have for the American people who surely would never want their government to blindly approve such a massive project without even knowing its route.

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