Far and away the most surprising part of Obama’s climate change speech yesterday was the bit about the Keystone pipeline. The speech was about adapting to and mitigating climate change, and few expected the President to touch on what may be the hottest hot-button green issue going right now—the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada’s oil sands to America’s Gulf Coast refineries.
Obama only devoted a minute to the topic, but he tipped his hand a bit, saying his administration would permit the pipeline “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”
Greens and browns are both reading what they want to read from that statement, but it could actually be setting up an approval of the pipeline. Here’s how: Obama won’t approve Keystone if the State Department decides that the pipeline increases net greenhouse gas emissions. The pipeline will be transporting crude oil from the Alberta oil sands, and this particular variety burns fairly dirty, even by oil’s standards. But a draft version of the State Department’s analysis of the pipeline, released in March, found that the tar sands oil will be coming out of the ground regardless of whether or not we build Keystone. The oil will be brought to market somehow, whether by rail or by the construction of a different pipeline through Canada. So while the oil will surely increase global emissions, the pipeline itself will have little net effect.
The State Department is expected to release a final version of that draft report sometime in the next few months, and unless it pulls a 180, the pipeline will pass the test Obama described yesterday. That’s good news for the US, Canada, and the US-Canada relationship, and though many greens might not believe it, it’s good news for the environment, as pipelines are a much safer way to transport oil than rail.