The Keystone XL pipeline became a political football in last year's elections because Republicans saw it as a symbol of the choice between environmental protection and jobs. New sources of fossil fuels would lift the economy out of its slump, they said, if only Obama and his tree-hugger pals would just get out of the way.
The election is over, and an Obama administration decision on the project is overdue. The pipeline route through Nebraska has been redrawn to protect environmentally sensitive areas. The State Department has ruled there is no environmental threat, at least not from the pipeline itself. One of our most important allies is losing patience.
But the symbolism remains potent, especially among environmental activists who have decided to draw a line in the tar sands of Canada. It's no longer about protecting the aquifer in Nebraska. It's about protecting the planet from climate change. Fossil fuels are bad, especially dirty oil extracted from tar sands, and they are determined to stop dirty oil from being produced - at least this oil from going through this pipeline.
Pipeline proponents always exaggerated its economic benefits. Estimates of the jobs the project would create run from 9,000 to 42,000, but most are temporary construction jobs out in the middle of nowhere. Once a pipeline is built, it doesn't take a lot of workers to keep in operation.
The project's energy benefits have been exaggerated as well. Keystone XL is an extension of the Keystone pipeline, which already runs from Canada to Oklahoma, adding a spur in the Northern Plains and bringing its terminus to refineries on the Texas coast, to a free-trade zone around Port Arthur, and from there it will be shipped overseas.
"Energy independence" is something of a mythical creature, at least when applied to commodities traded on a global market. If China buys more oil from Saudi Arabia, the price we pay at the pump goes up, even if the gas we're buying originated in a Texas oilfield. Canadian tar sands oil won't add enough to the world's supply to bring prices down for anyone.
But the Keystone opponents exaggerate its impact as well, and the rationale behind drawing this particular line in the sand is dubious.
As Joe Nocera has written in several columns criticizing the anti-Keystone crowd, Canada's oil will get to market one way or another. One alternative would take it to the Pacific, from there to be shipped to Asia, though that faces environmental obstacles too. But have the opponents forgotten trucks and trains? They are already carrying that nasty oil south.
Nocera also notes that, despite opponents' claims, the Canadian tar sands oil isn't "the dirtiest in the world." That prize goes to Venezuela's heavy and extra-heavy crude, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Page 2 of 2 - The U.S. gets 6 percent of the oil it uses from Venezuela, but it comes on ships, so there's no pipeline to protest.
The question environmentalists putting all their energies into stopping Keystone XL should ask themselves is what happens if they win? What will they have achieved? Some dirty oil in Canada will have a somewhat more expensive route to market.
Are they then expected to stop every pipeline, every new oil rig, everywhere in the world? I don't think that's how you wean humanity off its dependence on fossil fuels.
Building Keystone XL isn't an answer, either for the U.S. economy or our energy needs. But stopping Keystone isn't an energy policy. Climate change is too important to be wasting time and energy fighting symbolic battles.
Meanwhile, a carbon tax - which actually would be an energy/climate change policy - is gaining momentum. China has built a carbon tax into its five-year plan. A carbon tax has a few backers in Congress, but a long way to go.
It would get there more quickly if activists obsessed with Keystone XL would focus their energies on a policy that would make a difference.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at email@example.com.