A Stronger Case for Keystone

The Washington Post editorializes that the case for approving the Keystone XL pipeline was “always strong” and “has grown stronger.”

A key environmentalist argument against Keystone XL has been that the project would encourage the extraction of bitumen, a particularly dirty oil-like substance, from the “oil sands” in Alberta. If activists could “shut in” Canadian bitumen, limiting the ability of oil companies to sell the product, they argued, perhaps petroleum firms wouldn’t be able to fully develop the oil sands.

That hope always was unrealistic, and a recent announcement from Kinder Morgan, another pipeline company, illustrates why. The firm wants to nearly triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and Vancouver — a route from the oil sands to the world market — enabling it to carry even more product than the Keystone XL would. From there, much of it would probably head to Asia. Because the pipeline exists, expanding it may not face the same regulatory hurdles — particularly opposition from native groups — that other proposals to run new pipelines to Canada’s west coast have encountered.

There is already enough spare pipeline capacity running out of the oil sands to accommodate increasing production for much of this decade, a government report concluded in 2010. While Kinder Morgan’s expansion certainly wouldn’t sate all the future demand for pipeline capacity, it would add more time before the environmentalists’ strategy could seriously impact production. And it demonstrates a critical point: Even if environmentalists manage to stop one pipeline or another, given high world oil prices, the enthusiastic support of the Canadian government, the many transport options and the years available to develop infrastructure, it’s beyond quixotic to believe that enough of the affordable paths out will be blocked. Environmentalists might succeed, however, in relocating some construction jobs outside the United States.

The editorial also criticizes Republicans for trying to force the President’s hand. I think a better question is why this pipeline is subject to executive approval in the first place. The White House only has a say about Keystone XL because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border. Yet the stated reasons for not approving the pipeline — such as concerns about the potential environmental effect of a spill in Nebraska — have absolutely nothing to do with the pipeline’s transnational character and can be addressed through traditional regulatory controls and siting processes. Further, the legislation forcing an executive decision on the pipeline project expressly ensured state officials could alter the route to protect local environmental concerns. If there are no particular problems arising from the cross-border nature of this project, there’s no reason for the State Department to have any concerns — and it’s only the State Department’s review that is at issue. So before attacking the GOP for trying to force the President’s hand, the Post should ask how the President is able to hold up this project in the first place.