Mr. Obama’’s Easy Call on Keystone Bill

The New York Times Editorial Board

Congress has delivered to President Obama a bill commanding him to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, accompanied by a warning from House Speaker John Boehner to ignore the “”left-fringe extremists and anarchists”” who oppose the project.

It was not immediately clear whom Mr. Boehner had in mind, unless he meant the 90 scientists, economists and Nobel laureates who appealed this week to Mr. Obama to reject the pipeline on the grounds that the United States should not be complicit in unlocking some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet. In any case, Mr. Obama should ignore the speaker and, as he has promised, veto the bill. Because the pipeline would cross an international border, the decision about whether to proceed is his to make, not Congress’s, and the State Department review that will help guide that decision is not yet complete.

The veto is the easy call. The tougher one–for the president and his secretary of state, John Kerry–is whether eventually to say yes or no to the pipeline, which would carry about 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta’’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. In the great scheme of things, this would not be a big addition to a global oil output that now exceeds 90 million barrels a day. And the oil would come from a reliable friend, Canada. Building the pipeline would also provide about 3,900 temporary construction jobs over two years, but no more than 50 permanent jobs thereafter.

At the same time, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have declared, without reservation, that climate change is a grave and increasingly tangible threat to world stability. The Canadian tar sands oil can only add to that threat.

One reason is that tar sands oil yields roughly 17 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil. A bigger reason is that there is so much of it–170 billion barrels recoverable with today’’s technology and maybe 10 times that amount in potential resources. Mainstream climate scientists are virtually unanimous in saying that as much as two-thirds of the world’’s deposits of fossil fuels must remain in the ground if climate disaster is to be avoided. Alberta’’s tar sands oil should be among the first such deposits we decide to leave alone.

Saying no to the pipeline will not prevent the Canadians (and American oil companies that have invested in Alberta) from extracting the oil. But it could make the job much harder. The industry hopes to expand daily production to about five million barrels in 2030 from the current 1.9 million. Doing this profitably will require robust oil prices and access to pipelines, which are a much cheaper way of moving oil than rail. And with oil prices falling fast, pipelines become even more necessary.

Not building a pipeline means that more oil — and more carbon dioxide — will be left in the ground. That is the main reason to say no. Another is that, at least right now, this country does not need the oil. Improved technology, chiefly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, has opened up vast new deposits of not only natural gas but crude oil; in January 2014, Mr. Obama was able to announce that for the first time in decades the United States was producing more oil than it imported, and the Energy Information Administration has forecast that reliance on overseas oil will continue to fall.

The stars seem very much in alignment for a courageous presidential decision that would command worldwide attention and reinforce America’’s leadership role in the battle against global warming.

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