Keystone comes up dry

Senate sets aside Keystone XL pipeline that is likely to do more harm than good

Tuesday evening's Senate vote to approve the Keystone XL pipeline may have come up one vote shy of the necessary 60-vote margin, but it's surely not the last we've heard of the project. Republicans have become so enamored of TransCanada's vision of a 1,200-mile link from Canadian tar sands through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska and ultimately to Gulf Coast refineries that the controversial project is certain to be resurrected when the GOP gains full control of Congress in January, and it's entirely possible that it will eventually pass, although not necessarily with the two-thirds majority to overcome a potential veto by President Barack Obama.

Politics have so dominated the conversation about the Keystone XL that misinformation about it has spread faster and wider than the BP oil spill. The pipeline is not going to bring down gasoline prices in the United States. Indeed, it may increase them as it enables the transfer of crude oil that might have been destined for the U.S. to markets overseas, overcoming a transportation bottleneck that has helped keep down domestic crude oil prices. Good for TransCanada and big oil companies here and abroad, but not for prices at the pump.

Nor will the Keystone provide much of an economic stimulus in the U.S. Certainly, there are thousands of construction and supply jobs involved — as there would be for any project of this scale — but they won't last beyond the year or two it takes to construct the pipeline. How many permanent jobs does the project create in the U.S.? Likely about 35 once it's up and running. That's not exactly a game changer by any stretch of the imagination.

Meanwhile, it is safe to say that enabling Canada to extract more oil from the tar sands will be bad for the much-needed effort to reduce climate change. The production and processing of the dense oil extracted from bitumen deposits leads to the release of far more greenhouse gases than the oil that is normally consumed in the U.S. One study estimated the difference would represent the equivalent of adding as many as 4.3 million more passengers cars on the road. For those who deny the science of global warming, this may not seem like much of a big deal. But for those who don't automatically dismiss the views of scholars and leading researchers, this has been a major concern — and far from the only environmental risk the project poses.

The danger of an oil spill from a break in the pipeline is also a major concern as its proximity to the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the major source of freshwater in the region. Spills from railroad tank cars, the alternative to a pipeline, are an even bigger concern, of course. But opponents of the pipleline point out that rail transport is more costly and inefficient, reducing the economic incentive to tap Alberta's resources. And any delay in tar sands development is a good thing as it gives world leaders more time to craft climate change initiatives like the one recently produced by President Obama and China's Xi Jinping. Eventually, those agreements may lead to countries adopting policies like caps on emissions or carbon taxes that will steer nations toward renewable energy and away from the more destructive forms of fossil fuels.

So what's the real incentive here to trump the State Department's consideration and ignore the Nebraska Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether the Nebraska Public Service Commission must also review the proposed pipeline, all for the benefit of a project that could cause considerable harm and offers only modest economic benefit to the U.S.? Politics, of course. Whether it's Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu's desire to establish her big-oil bona fides before her Dec. 6 runoff election or just the GOP pitch to make President Obama look anti-business, there's a lot more symbolism than substance going on here.

Both of Maryland's senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, wisely voted against the measure. Ultimately, the decision remains in the hands of President Obama, who is waiting on Nebraska's high court but has also expressed skepticism about the pipeline — as well he should. If members of Congress want to dabble in the energy sector, they should be focused on steering the U.S. toward a forward-looking, sensible and sustainable policy that benefits all and not digging ourselves deeper into the perilous hole of climate change, which looms as far more significant for the American economy and public than any short-term benefits to be derived from Alberta.

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