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Tie Keystone approval to bigger environmental goals

Pipes for the Keystone pipeline sit in a storage depot in North Dakota.REUTERS

The US Senate is expected to vote on the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline today, after the GOP-controlled House passed a bill to force construction last week. The measure will get bipartisan support, although a filibuster may still delay the actual vote. Nonetheless, the president should veto it.

Supporters like to say that the 1,179-mile expansion of the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas, will create thousands of jobs. Opponents decry it as an environmental disaster, suggesting that refining tar sands is incredibly toxic while raising the alarm that greenhouse gases will increase dramatically. Landowners along the proposed route worry about potential leaks. Yet based on State Department and independent reviews of the project, all of these outcomes are probably overstated.

So a veto now shouldn’t mean that Obama ought to reject Keystone categorically — just that approval ought to be predicated on bigger concessions by Congress on another part of the president’s environmental agenda. The goal should be to reduce emissions and boost energy efficiency, rather than block pipelines per se. (Especially given the aging, unsafe energy infrastructure the United States relies on today.)


Pushing for a carbon tax is a no-brainer, but also a non-starter among most Republicans. But other compromises are more promising, such as an international global warming agreement, high-speed rail, or making solar or wind power credits permanent, which would spur more construction of renewables.

DISCUSS: What should be done about the Keystone XL pipeline?

Obama, in coming months, already appears set to order some of the most sweeping regulatory action to deal with climate change that Washington has seen in the past two decades. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new rules on ozone standards and toxic coal ash as well as restrict greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants. There is little Congress can do to stop these regulations, but simply dropping threats to undercut them through the appropriations process — as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has vowed — could be key. Indeed, securing a promise of inaction from legislators determined to hobble the EPA could alone be a victory worth allowing Keystone XL to go forward.


The House has already voted nine times to send the pipeline project to the president’s desk for approval. The Senate, once it’s under Republican control come January, will surely pass another measure to that effect. The president would be wisest to bide his time. If the new GOP Congress wants Keystone so badly, it should be willing to negotiate a comprehensive climate deal.