After months of protests and more than a thousand arrests, environmental activists have succeeded in getting the United States government to indefinitely delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil-laden bitumen from Canada to the Gulf Coast. They are understandably jubilant, but their celebrations are shortsighted. The tactics and arguments that have won the day are ultimately as likely to retard clean energy development as they are to thwart dirty fuels.
The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.
Yet oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy.