WILLIAMSTOWN -- I don't want to see the Keystone XL pipeline slithering through any part of the United States, but I think it would be a mistake to judge President Barack Obama's environmental credentials by whether that happens, as several national organizations have threatened.

The pipeline, proposed either to the Gulf Coast in Texas or to Portland, Maine, would carry synthetic oil and diluted bitumen from the tar sands of western Alberta, Canada, to U.S. destinations for refining and shipment. The Athabaskan field equals all the other proven oil reserves in the world; about 10 percent could be recovered.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in one of the debates, asked President Obama why he didn't immediately approve the XL pipe; probably sensing a trap, Obama declined to respond. He might have said, mining the bitumen would destroy a considerable amount of Alberta's landscape; construction of the pipeline would do considerably more environmental damage in the U.S. Producing the oil would unleash quantities of carbon dioxide, previously sequestered under the ground, thereby contributing mightily to climate change. Such a close and bountiful oily source might undermine the progress this country is making toward green power.

Obama put off the final decision until after the election. On the assumption that, as a practical matter, Canada cannot transport the bitumen without a pipeline through the United States, and since a pipe crossing the border requires approval from the State Department, environmentalists continue to urge the president, and the new Secretary of State John Kerry, to deny that permission.


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TransCanada, the developer, claims to have an alternate route, to the west. In any case, it's hard to imagine that a resource of that value would remain in the ground indefinitely.

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There may be a better way to reduce use of carbon fuels from any source and create funding to pursue alternative energy: namely, a carbon tax or, to follow NASA's James Hansen's lead, since "tax" is considered a dirty word, a carbon fee. If the cost of burning fossil fuel is elevated and the cost of green energy reduced, the market will swing, without the U. S. trying to defend the country from northern crude. Let's embrace real windmills, not tilt quixotically at giants.

The amount of income from the fee could be large, enough to contribute significantly to the reduction of the national debt. A carbon fee would be regressive, however, in that it would be more of a burden to poorer people than the wealthy, so imposition of such a fee should be coupled with a way of returning some of the income to those not so well-off.

This could be done by a cash rebate on the amount of gasoline and heating oil used, or it could offset some other existing tax. In any case, a portion of the income should also be set aside to stimulate development, production and sales of solar panels, a smarter electric grid, electric or hybrid vehicles and, yes, wind turbines.

Is Congress passing such a fee a pipe dream? Well, it might be worth a pipeline to try.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist,
Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.