Doing the right thing on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline became easier for President Barack Obama Friday when the latest study concluded it would do little environmental damage. He should green-light the massive construction project.
The privately financed, $5.3-billion pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Obama has to personally grant a "presidential permit" for the construction because the pipeline would cross a border into the United States.
It's a tough call for him politically because the project pits two key Democratic interest groups against each other. Unions want the pipeline and the 3,900 temporary jobs an environmental impact statement released by the U.S. State Department on Friday said will be directly created by two years of construction. But environmentalists remain adamantly opposed, fearing leaks and acceleration of climate change from the release of greenhouse gases.
Extracting oil from the earth and refining it into gasoline, diesel fuel and home heating oil is a dirty business. Some degradation of the environment is one price we pay for our dependance on fossil fuels. That's where our efforts should be directed -- increased conservation and accelerating the development of alternatives, such as solar, wind, batteries and biofuels. But for now we rely on oil. The stretch of pipeline from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast that requires no presidential permit is already being built. But Obama denied approval for the northern section last year because the route created an unacceptable risk to groundwater. Since then, the TransCanada Corp. has modified the route through Nebraska to avoid the vast Ogallala aquifer and cut 509 miles from its length, which is now 875 miles.
The State Department's study raised no major objections to the new plan. The study found the pipeline would do less environmental harm than moving the oil by truck, rail or barge.
Blocking the pipeline probably wouldn't prevent Canada from expanding its oil extraction. Its plan B is to transport the crude to the Pacific Ocean by truck or rail or a new pipeline in Canada, and then to market in China. For many reasons, including global warming, price and geopolitics, we wish the world didn't rely on fossil fuels. For now, it does.