Lawmakers should have used the time to find real alternatives

President Obama last week finally did something many felt he should and could have done near the start of his administration: He said no to the Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline between western Canada and refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Particularly during the months leading up to the 2012 presidential and 2014 congressional elections, the slowly oozing nature of this bureaucratic decision struck both supporters and opponents of the pipeline as brazen political cowardice. Clearly, a progressive Democrat would not give the go-ahead to a fossil-fuel project of such stellar symbolic importance.

Declining for so long to simply make this decision official was a matter of avoiding an election-year handicap for a handful of politicians — perhaps most notably Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, who lost her 2014 re-election bid despite vociferously defending Keystone on behalf of her energy-oriented state.

It is important to note that Keystone is not particularly important as either a great economic boon or as a potent villain in the struggle against climate change.

From the climate perspective, denying permits to one oil pipeline — even a major one like Keystone — is the equivalent of hoping to stop the blight of heroin addiction by banning the sale of a hypodermic needle. The pipeline is merely one delivery system for oil; the private companies and economic forces that push for more fossil-fuel development will find other ways to get their product to market.

In fact, Joel Connelly of the Seattle P-I reported last week that the 800,000 barrels per day of Alberta tar sands that would have been carried by Keystone will likely instead be piped within Canada to the British Columbia coast and then via tanker ship down through sensitive Pacific Northwest waters. Tanker traffic through Haro Strait between the San Juan and Gulf Islands could increase from five ships a month to 34.

“We are going to see a HUGE increase in tanker traffic through the San Juan Islands: I have worked most of my life to protect the orcas in our waters (and) this decision scares the hell out of me,” Washington’s ex-Secretary of State Ralph Munro wrote on Facebook.

It will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed if the U.S. notches an illusory climate win that someday results in a major oil spill in the Salish Sea.

Nor do Keystone advocates have much of a leg to stand on when they claim enormous job creation. After an admittedly welcome bump in jobs during pipeline construction, permanent employment gains have been estimated at a grand total of 35 nationwide for ongoing operation and maintenance. The pipeline would have added less than one-tenth of 1 percent to the U.S. economy.

Legitimate and substantial steps to begin limiting climate damage from burning fossil fuels have long been stymied by the manipulations of corporations and their servants in Congress, who deny anything is going wrong. The New York attorney general’s investigation of ExxonMobil’s alleged efforts to deliberately deceive the public is the beginning of the end of willful ignorance about the challenges we face from greenhouse gases created during traditional energy production.

Time wasted in an empty fight over Keystone XL should have been spent by the U.S. and Canada in developing real alternatives to burning tar-sand oil, American coal and other dirty fuels. Real leaders will quit playing games and immediately get busy with funding research and development of clean energy. It quite possibly can be done, but we can’t afford to lose another moment.

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