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Hoping Harper scores pipeline breakthrough

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President Barack Obama, your friendly neighbour to the north wants a word with you. We hear rumblings the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is keen to arrange a high-level confab on energy policy. His objective: Convince a skeptical White House the Keystone XL pipeline project would be good for both countries. Harper reportedly might dangle an agreement for Canada to cap its carbon emissions, if that would move the $5.3-billion Keystone project forward.

After two years of delays, Obama keeps finding new excuses to stall Keystone, which would carry raw petroleum from land-locked Alberta oilsands to refineries and ports in the Gulf of Mexico. The president this summer put the burden on Canada to "do more" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its oil production. It would be no surprise to us if the Harper government takes him up on it. The project is that important to North America's long-term economic prospects.

Obama should be welcoming Keystone. It is a large-scale infrastructure improvement funded by a private company that promises a big payoff. Building it would create thousands of construction jobs. It would encourage investment in related energy services and make the transport of crude oil safer and more efficient.

Yet, the debate over Keystone's environmental impact continues with a frustrating lack of resolution. The State Department, which is charged with evaluating the project because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border, has already made an early determination on the pollution impact. The agency said in a draft review earlier this year Keystone would "not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects."

But that review has come under criticism. The Environmental Protection Agency has raised objections, as has the Interior Department -- which challenged, for instance, the conclusion building the pipeline would only temporarily disrupt wildlife in its path. Critics say the consultancy that studied the project on behalf of the State Department had undisclosed conflicts of interest. An internal investigation of those allegations is likely to take months.

The bureaucratic squabbling has put the Keystone project in limbo. But the energy industry is not standing still.

Since shipping petroleum from the oilsands south is so problematic, Canada has launched pipeline projects to its east and west coasts. In the U.S., existing pipelines are expanding to carry Canadian oil. Railroads are moving huge amounts, and refineries have built rail terminals to accommodate that train traffic.

Keystone would deliver the same goods more efficiently. Partly as a result of the legal and political obstacles it has faced, the project would be overbuilt to exacting specifications that reduce the possibility of leaks or other accidents.

Pipelines generally are a safer way to move volatile substances than are trucks or trains. The explosion two months ago of a runaway train loaded with oil in the Quebec town of Lac-M©gantic, which claimed 47 lives, shows the risks involved.

The pipeline would deliver oil to the U.S. that is likelier to be shipped abroad after being refined into fuel and other products than it is to be consumed here.

That said, one of the least-compelling objections to the project is the notion exporting American-refined oil products would exploit Americans. Even if all the Keystone oil were exported, the U.S. economy still would benefit from pipeline construction, refinery jobs and international shipping.

Making products the rest of the world wants is evidence of economic strength. As our economy recovers and consumers here boost demand for petroleum products, today's exports could be tomorrow's domestic supply.

All good reasons for the Obama administration to approve the Keystone project. We hope Canada's latest diplomatic efforts produce a breakthrough.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2013 A11

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