The opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, who equate their White House sit-ins with the civil rights battles of the 1960s, are drawing a false moral equivalence. Far from fighting an injustice, they are blocking something that will create a continuing and jointly shared economic benefit.
The pipeline will help to match areas of surplus oil-sands supply in Alberta to areas of surplus refining capacity on the U.S. Gulf Coast, all to meet the continent's ongoing appetite for oil products, primarily gasoline and other petrochemicals.
For both Canadians and Americans, the alternatives to the pipeline are actually worse. Shipping oil-sands products to the U.S. by water would still require a pipeline, which faces opposition from some aboriginal Canadian leaders, and then an expensive and hazardous trip through narrow British Columbia channels to American ports. Or would Canadians rather stop oil-sands exports to the U.S. in favour of Asian markets? For Americans, the pipeline helps reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Environmentalists are right to be concerned about the overall increase in emissions that comes from oil. But a large share of that comes not from the oil sands directly, but from the transportation sector, from the vehicles that burn fuels refined from oil-sands bitumen. The activists could instead advocate a quicker development of electric-car infrastructure, or better cross-border policies that would reduce emissions across a number of sectors.
And even then, the pipeline would be justified: As a study for the U.S. Department of Energy found, "Under any given pipeline scenario, reducing U.S. oil demand would result in reduction of oil imports from non-Canadian foreign sources, especially the Middle East, with no material reduction in imports of Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin crude." It also predicted "no significant change in total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, whether Keystone XL is built or not."
Only when accompanied by other, extreme policies – namely, an immediate repudiation of oil as a fuel source generally – does opposition to the pipeline on climate-change grounds gain a measure of internal consistency. And that set of policies would be ruinous.
Environmentalists also worry about spills and groundwater contamination. But the pipeline proponents have been especially responsive to the U.S. State Department's concerns, agreeing to 57 special conditions relating to the pipeline's design, construction and deployment.
Peter Lougheed, the former Alberta premier, has expressed concerns about the pace of oil-sands expansion, and reservations about the pipeline because he wants bitumen to be refined in Alberta, not Texas. Those, too, are legitimate concerns. But those issues are not resolved by stopping the pipeline.
The Keystone XL pipeline carries wide-ranging benefits while being tangential to the climate-change debate. Given the diligence being exercised to minimize environmental damage along its route, it should go ahead.