This morning, Politico looks at the Keystone XL protests in Washington, D.C., which it frames as a “stern warning” to President Obama. In other words, if the White House approves the pipeline, environmentalists will turn their back on Obama in the 2012 election.

The pipeline has become a, well, a keystone issue (sorry) in energy politics, and as is often the case in such situations, both the arguments for and against it are probably a bit overstated.

Bill McKibben, who organized the D.C. protests, has said that over the long-term, tar sands extraction has the potential to disastrously raise atmospheric CO2 levels by 200 ppm. Canadian economist Andrew Leach acknowledges that number is technically correct, but “laughably out of context,” as it would take until approximately the year 3316 to reach that level.

Proponents of the pipeline cite energy security issues, and argue that Canada will just find a way to ship oil to China if the United States doesn’t buy it. That’s also technically true, but the problem, as we’ve noted before, is that Keystone XL doesn’t necessarily prevent Canadian companies from shipping oil to China, in fact, it makes it easier.

Perhaps the more tangible issue is for people who live along the pipeline’s route, particularly in Nebraska (my home state, if it matters), where it would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, a key source of irrigation and drinking water for much of the Great Plains. As Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard points out in an excellent summary of the issue, the potential threat to that water supply has drawn out opposition from across the political spectrum.

The simple reality is that the pipeline is a way for Canadian oil companies to sell more of their product, and make more money doing so. Honestly, it’s not as though TransCanada came up with Keystone XL after sitting around dreaming of a way to improve American energy security.

But let’s get back to that line in the sand. Should Keystone XL be at the center of the climate change fight? The always thought-provoking energy consultant Geoffrey Styles says the carbon emissions from the oil sands are a real concern, but that most of those emissions will take place in the United States as we burn that oil in our cars.

…we shouldn’t forget that under UN agreements it is Canada that bears responsibility for the extra emissions that oil sands generate in Alberta. … Whatever path [Canadians] choose, we have plenty of our own emissions to consider without going into a tizzy over a Canadian sector that currently emits roughly as much as U.S. livestock waste management.

Canada, as Styles points out, ratified the Kyoto Protocol, while the United States did not. So does Obama really have the political cover he needs to reject the pipeline on the grounds that it will contribute to climate change? If the U.S. wants to get serious about CO2 emissions, are there perhaps more effective things we could do that don’t involve pissing off our closest political and strategic ally?

And if the pipeline is approved, will environmental groups make good on their threat to punish Obama at the ballot box for it?

Photo by tarsandsaction via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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