A hollow victory for Keystone opponents

The Observer editorial board

President Barack Obama announces his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline Friday.
President Barack Obama announces his rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline Friday. AP

As environmentalists enjoy their victory dance over President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline Friday, they might want to include some time looking in the mirror.

In turning a routine infrastructure project into an environmental cause célèbre, Keystone opponents dipped deep into a bag of familiar tactics. They’re the ones we often decry in conservatives.

Like scaremongering, for example. Environmentalists argued that approving Keystone, which would have transported about 800,000 barrels of petroleum product a day from the Canadian oil sands to the U.S. gulf coast, would have done significant damage to the environment. One prominent activist said the pipeline would be “game over for the climate.”

Problem is, several U.S. State Department reviews concluded that wasn’t the case. Keystone would have little impact on the environment, they said, because Canada would continue to extract and transport the bitumen without the pipeline.

In fact, that transport would be done through existing pipelines and rail, which is less safe than Keystone would have been.

Keystone’s opponents also went past the misleading into stuff that just wasn’t true. The big whopper, told often, was that none of the oil from Keystone would be sold in the United States. Even the president repeated this xenophobic fib, which his own State Department debunked.

The reality: The oil produced from Keystone bitumen would go where the market dictated. Some of that would be domestic, some overseas. The State Department estimated about a 50/50 split. (Obama, to his credit, didn’t include the export falsehood in the reasons he gave Friday for rejecting Keystone.)

All of which points to a pattern of ignoring research that doesn’t affirm what you want to believe. Sound familiar?

Not that Keystone proponents didn’t engage in some hyperbole of their own. They overstated the job benefits that would come from the pipeline, when only a few dozen permanent jobs were expected. (A State Department analysis did say that 42,000 jobs temporary would have been “supported” by the Keystone project, which probably would have been welcomed by those 42,000 people.)

In the end, Keystone’s rejection will have little impact, economically or environmentally, just as an approval would hardly have moved either needle. Keystone was nothing more than an efficient transitional step, a way to provide a stable source of oil while we get to where we need to be with clean energy.

And make no mistake, clean energy should be our ultimate goal.

What was achieved Friday, however, was symbolic. It was a win of environmental principle, but it also was a victory for the kind of absolutism that hurts debate and progress – no matter which side engages in it.