Au revoir, Keystone

The reaction following President Barack Obama's decision to formally reject the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline today as against the U.S. national interest has been swift and entirely predictable. Conservatives, including Republican presidential candidates, attacked it as a self-inflicted wound to the nation's economy while environmentalists hailed it as a breakthrough in the fight against climate change.

The reality is that President Obama has not turned off the spigot from the Alberta tar sands — Canadian oil producers have other ways to get their product to market, if only through tanker-trains — but he has chosen not to make the U.S. an enabler by disallowing the 875-mile-long U.S. portion of the pipeline running through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska that could dramatically increase extraction and supply Gulf Coast refiners. It was a logical choice given the facts. The U.S. needs to promote clean, sustainable energy and not a particularly dirty source of fossil fuel that worsens air pollution and pumps more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.


As Mr. Obama noted at his announcement, "some fossil fuels need to be left in the ground." Those who deny the existence of climate change will refuse to see the necessity of this, but they are the flat-earthers of our age. The scientific evidence is simply too overwhelming to dwell on the modern version of the Know-Nothings, the 19th century party that, incidentally, strongly opposed immigration, too. The better question for a Keystone debate is this: How can the U.S. prevent the worst effects of climate change before it's too late to act?

Had Mr. Obama headed to U.N. climate change talks in Paris in three weeks with the project still under review, it would not have helped and perhaps would even have weakened U.S. efforts to achieve a meaningful global agreement on greenhouse gases. Now the president has momentum on his side, and the harsher the criticism from the Republicans, the more serious his arguments will sound. His willingness to reject such a big project championed by such a close ally and neighbor is an indicator of the strength of his commitment to the cause.

Mr. Obama's timing could scarcely have been better. Gasoline prices are down and job creation is picking up — so much so that the Federal Reserve may soon raise interest rates. For months, the question among Democrats has always been when, not if, the State Department would recommend rejection. Much of the flack Mr. Obama has taken has been based on misrepresentations of what Keystone would accomplish. There were few permanent jobs involved, it wouldn't have reduced prices at the gas pump (in some cases, it might even have raised them) and it would not have reduced U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil in any meaningful way.

As the president also observed, if creating jobs is our goal, Congress should invest more in neglected infrastructure — starting with the pending transportation bill (which still lacks the full funding that only an overdue increase in the federal gas tax could provide). If the goal is to reduce oil dependency, the U.S. needs to continue to invest more in conservation and alternative clean energy sources, an option that not only means burning less oil but ensures a better future for our children.

But we'll give the pro-TransCanada crowd one nod. The Keystone was not the game-changer on climate that critics sometimes represented it to be — or as Mr. Obama noted, it was not going to put the U.S. on the "express lane to climate disaster" just as it was never going to provide a high-octane blast for the economy. If anything, the impetus now should be on Washington to tighten regulations governing freight rail safety, another area of need that has gone neglected for too long, particularly given the threat posed by tanker car derailments.

At best, the Keystone has been a distraction. And if Republicans seriously believe that Canada will invest in a domestic pipeline to fill the Keystone void, they haven't noticed the recent election that put Justin Trudeau in office. The new prime minister may have expressed "disappointment" with Mr. Obama's decision, but he's not exactly broken up about it, reminding reporters that "the Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than one project." There's a reason Canadians elected a leader who cares much more about climate change than his predecessor — polls show support in that country for the Keystone has dropped just as it's fallen in the U.S.

Au revoir, Keystone, nous ne vous pas manquez. Even if a Republican president tried to revive the project down the road, Senate Democrats (and a whole lot of Americans) are unlikely to go along.