Oil and politics are a volatile mix for President Barack Obama, as he weighs whether to approve a pipeline to bring crude oil from Canada to Texas. On the merits, Obama should greenlight construction of the Keystone Pipeline. Our economy runs on oil. Given the political volatility in some oil-rich regions of the world, it's just common sense to help maximize the oil-producing capacity of our friend to the north.
But Obama tried to put off the issue until after the election. That's because to decide is to antagonize either labor unions, who want pipeline jobs, or environmentalists, who fear pollution and climate change. Republicans, happy to see Obama caught between two Democratic interest groups, required a decision by Feb. 21 as part of the agreement that temporarily extended the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits.
The TransCanada Corp.'s privately financed $7-billion, 1,700-mile, underground Keystone Pipeline would transport up to 830,000 barrels a day of crude oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, south through five states to refineries in Texas. The battle over the required "presidential permit" has been cast as jobs versus the environment, but arguments on both sides are overblown.
Proponents, including a number of unions, claim the pipeline will create employment for tens of thousands, with projections including spinoff jobs soaring up to 150,000. The official State Department estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 construction jobs is more believable.
Anti-pipeline environmentalists, 10,000 of whom protested outside the White House in November, are concerned that pipeline leaks will foul drinking water and that greenhouse gases released during the extraction of relatively dirty crude from tar sands will exacerbate climate change.
But there are already 55,000 miles of pipelines transporting crude oil in the United States. While there are occasional leaks, they are safer than alternatives such as oil tankers or trucks. The U.S. Department of State issued a final environmental impact statement for the pipeline in August 2011. The only significant recommendation was to modify the route through Nebraska to protect water in the vast Ogallala aquifer. As for climate change, it's unlikely that blocking the pipeline to Texas would prevent Canada from expanding its oil extraction from tar sands. It could opt for a pipeline through Canada to the Pacific Ocean to move the crude to market in China.
Extracting oil from the earth and refining it into gasoline is a dirty business. Some environmental degradation is one price we pay for our dependence on oil. Vulnerability to events in unfriendly, oil-rich nations is another. Just last week Iran reacted to threats of expanded economic sanctions over its nuclear ambitions by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea route from the Persian Gulf, and a passage through which 20 percent of the crude oil traded worldwide is shipped.
Increased oil production in Canada would help ensure a reliable supply and also mitigate prices. It's in the nation's interest to get the Keystone pipeline built.