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Canada’s Oil, the World’s Carbon

A version of this editorial appeared in print on July 30, 2012, on page A18 of the New York edition

Last month, the State Department formally invited public comment on the issues it should consider in a new environmental assessment of the Keystone XL, a 1,200-mile pipeline that would connect the Alberta oil sands to an existing pipeline in Nebraska. The review process was triggered when TransCanada filed a new pipeline application after its first proposal was rejected by President Obama in January. The department’s first environmental assessment was grossly inadequate, one of the main reasons President Obama rejected the proposal.

The department is trying to do a better job this time. It will almost certainly ask all the right questions about the impact of the pipeline on the United States — what it means for our soil, our water, our species, our cultural resources and our jobs. What is less certain is whether it will ask an essential global question that transcends borders: What is the pipeline’s likely effect on the climate?

The answer to that question may not determine the State Department’s recommendation about whether the pipeline should be built, or Mr. Obama’s decision if he is re-elected (Mitt Romney has already said he would approve the pipeline if he wins). Nor will America’s decision stop Canada’s development of the tar sands, or the sale of its oil elsewhere in the world.

But the climate question must be addressed, if only to give a full accounting of the range of consequences of developing the tar sands, an effort in which the United States will be complicit if it allows the pipeline. That includes the effect of destroying 740,000 acres of boreal forest (a vital sink for greenhouse gases); the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted in extracting the oil from the tar sands (a highly energy-intensive process); and the gases emitted by burning the oil.

The point was reinforced this month when 10 leading climate scientists sent a letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton asking the State Department to consider how helping to open Canada’s tar sands would affect the planet’s climate. “The vast volumes of carbon in the tar sands ensure that they will play an important role in whether or not climate change gets out of hand,” the letter said. “Understanding the role this large-scale new pipeline will play in that process is clearly crucial.”

We hope, of course, that the State Department is rigorous in addressing all relevant questions: whether America needs this oil now or in the future; how many jobs the pipeline will actually provide. The department will also be asking about the danger of oil spills. But its report will be incomplete if it does not also consider what the oil flowing through the Keystone XL would spill into the skies — both now and in the future.


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