Greens Are Justifiably Mad About the Oil Sands Pipeline. But Sitting Out 2012 Elections Would Be Insane

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Activists protested the proposed Keystone XL pipeline are arrested outside the White House. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past week, hundreds of activists—from celebrities and scientists to ordinary citizens—have come to Washington to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring up to 500,000 barrels of crude a day from western Canada’s oil sands. Scores of those activists have been arrested, but more keep coming every day, urging President Obama to block the proposed 1,700 mile pipeline. (You can read about the background of the Keystone battle here.) Greens are worried about the threat of spills along the pipeline, which would run from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, and they argue that building the pipeline would speed the mining of Canada’s heavy oil sands, with catastrophic consequences for the climate. But most of all, environmentalists—angry over the failure of climate legislation—want President Obama to step up and stop the pipeline himself, to show that he really does care about the climate, as Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica said today:

Whether to approve this pipeline is the most important environmental decision President Obama will make before the election. If he sides with greedy oil companies instead of people and the climate, he will essentially be urging a huge part of his base to sit out the election.

Environmentalists—get ready to be disappointed. Today the State Department issued its final environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and found that its construction and operation will have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” (The State Department has responsibility for the pipeline because it crosses international borders.) That judgement moves the $7 billion project closer to completion, pending a 90-day review by State of whether pipeline is in the national interest, with a final decision expected by the end of the year.

Essentially, the State Department ruled that should TransCanada—the company that would build Keystone—follow the law, the environmental risks from the pipeline would be low:

The analyses of potential impacts associated with construction and normal operation of the proposed project suggest that there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed project corridor.

That ruling had already upset a lot of people who live along the proposed pipeline route—especially those in Nebraska, who worry that a spill could taint the state’s Ogallala aquifer. (And a pipeline spill is far from impossible—just look at the problems caused by a leak along an Exxon pipeline earlier this summer in Montana.) There’s normal NIMBYism involved there—even one of Nebraska’s Republican senators, Mike Johanns, wants the pipeline rerouted away from his home state. But what has people willing to get arrested outside the White House is the potentially outsized impact that full-scale development of Canadian oil sands would have on climate change. There is an estimated 400 gigatons of carbon sequestered in the Albertan oil sands, and burning all of it could raise the atmospheric concentration of carbon by 200 ppm—enough to push the climate well into the danger zone. Essentially, as the NASA climatologist and activist James Hansen argues, tapping the oil sands would mean “game over” for the climate.

Critics like Andrew Leach, a researcher at the University of Alberta school of business, argue that Hansen and some of his allies are overstating the impact that the Keystone pipeline, and the oil sands more broadly, might have on climate change. That 400 gigatons of carbon figure sounds amazing, but at 5 million barrels of oil a day it would take until the year 3316 to mine and burn all that carbon. It didn’t help that a video touted by the green website Grist made the claim that the oil sands developments were responsible for 36 million tons of carbon a day—which would be pretty amazing, as all of Canada only produces 2 million tons of carbon a day.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether the Keystone XL pipeline is in our national interest or not. On one hand it seems to be a mistake in an increasingly carbon-constrained world to spend large amounts of capital on a project that would lock in a higher-emissions brand of oil, even if it does come from our geopolitically friendly neighbors to the north. On the other hand, oil is a fungible commodity, and it seems quite possible that if the Canadians can’t sell oil sands to us, they’ll find someone else—like the Chinese—who will take it and burn it, with the climate ending up none the better. It’s always seemed to me that we should be focusing on reducing our demand and directly developing competitive alternatives, rather than trying to shut down new supply—at least when it comes to oil, for which there is still no effective and economical alternative.

But as veteran environmentalists know, it’s a lot easier to rally people to stop something—especially if it might run through their backyards—rather than try to rally them for something. So many greens have chosen to draw a line in the sand on oil sands, putting their freedom—temporarily—at risk and demanding that President Obama put up or shut up. Hansen again:

If Obama chooses the dirty needle it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing all along, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians, with no real intention of solving the addiction.

Like my colleague Michael Grunwald, I think greens have given Obama an unfairly hard time, overlooking some of his very real achievements. Of course, if you believe as Hansen and Bill McKibben that climate change is an existential threat to the human race, demanding immediate and overriding action, than Obama hasn’t done nearly enough—nor have any of us. But greens are wrong to make their political stand on the Keystone pipeline, an obscure piece of infrastructure connected to a fossil fuel resource that isn’t even American. How much will that matter to most Americans outside the green hardcore? Is this really the climate judgement upon which Obama should be judged? I don’t think so.

And then there are the consequences. Environmentalists cannot possibly be serious when they threaten to sit out the 2012 elections if Keystone XL goes through. They cannot. With the exception of Jon Huntsman—who has about the same chance as you or I of becoming President—every Republican presidential candidate has expressed serious doubts about climate change, at the very least, and has threatened to eviscerate or even eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. If greens want to sit out the election and help a President Rick Perry or a President Michele Bachmann become a reality, go ahead. It might even feel good. But the consequences would be far, far, far worse than any single pipeline.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME