Obama running out the clock on Keystone pipeline

The Pacific Northwest has a practical interest in the faraway Keystone XL pipeline. If completed, it might divert some Alberta crude oil away from Pacific Northwest waters, where a spill could do immense damage to Northern Pacific marine life.

Unfortunately, practicalities don’t have much to do with the fight over the pipeline. Environmentalists have turned it into an apocalyptic battle over the future of the planet, arguing that the project would hasten climate change by helping Canada get its vast reserves of Alberta oil sands to market.

As it happens, those oil sands are reaching refineries anyway – through train connections that are expanding at an explosive rate to compensate for the lack of pipeline capacity. It should be noted that oil tanker cars are considerably more dangerous than underground pipes, 2.5 million miles of which already crisscross the United States.

President Obama would have been smart not to let himself get dragged into this tar pit of a dispute. Instead, he has spent the last five years playing a coy, passive-aggressive game. Because Keystone XL would cross the Canadian-U.S. border, it needs presidential approval. But Obama has seized on one reason after another not to make a decision, presumably because he doesn’t want to anger either environmentalists or the trade unions hungry for the construction jobs the project would create.

His latest reason to postpone decision evaporated last week, when the Nebraska supreme court tossed out a challenge filed by pipeline opponents in that state. Obama had said he was waiting on that case’s outcome. Now he’s waiting on further reviews by the State Department, which has already exhaustively studied the project and concluded it would not contribute to climate change. Canadian government leaders have been infuriated by the endless delays.

Enter the reinforced and emboldened congressional Republicans. On Friday, the House voted to authorize the pipeline; on Monday, the Senate followed.

Their action, though, has turned this into a separation-of-powers battle. Ordinarily, the executive would make the final decision on a border-straddling project like Keystone XL. Obama says he’ll veto its approval by Congress. Congressional Republicans – and the Democrats who’ve joined them in this fight – don’t have the votes to override.

So the status quo is likely to continue, the president deciding by not deciding. Meanwhile, nothing good is happening.

From a calm environmental perspective, a pipeline ought to be preferable to hundreds of trains hauling volatile crude in old, rupture-prone tanker cars. It makes no sense to fight Keystone XL as if it were the end of the world while railroads ramp up to carry comparable volumes of the same oil sands to market.

The stalling of Keystone XL has also helped create a grand business opportunity for the energy company Kinder Morgan.

The corporation now operates the Trans Mountain pipeline that carries petroleum from Alberta to Burnaby, just outside Vancouver. It is pushing to almost triple the capacity of Trans Mountain from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels a day – more than the planned capacity of Keystone XL.

Look at the map: Loaded on tankers, the additional crude would flow past Washington’s San Juan Islands and through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on its way to Asian refineries. If one of those tankers came to grief in the wrong place, the oil would foul our cold waters for many years.

The Keystone XL project could lessen the likelihood of that scenario – another reason to get the pipeline finished.