After a decade in which the coal and oil lobbies have frustrated their efforts to put in place a cost-effective policy to slow climate change, environmental groups scored a win last week on a related, high visibility issue. Trouble is, their objective, halting the expansion of the Keystone pipeline system to bring more oil south from Canada, wasn’t worth the fight. Indeed, the primary lesson here seems to be that NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) trumps other environmental policy arguments (good and bad) in a dysfunctional Washington.

America is, of necessity, crisscrossed with pipelines that move crude and refined liquids from well to refinery to market. And for the most part, their construction hasn’t made waves because oil is relatively safe (far safer than natural gas) to transport. What really sets apart the proposed pipeline expansion, which would add a link between Canada and Gulf Coast refineries, is the source of the crude.

Canada is rapidly expanding production of oil from “tar sands,” which is available in great quantity in Alberta. There’s no free lunch here: the extraction process uses a lot of energy, thereby generating more carbon emissions than extraction from conventional oil fields. But Canada, which (unlike the United States) has a climate change policy in place, decided that the benefits exceed the societal costs. The closest market for the additional oil is to the south; hence the proposed pipeline expansion.

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