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Keystone XL Pipeline Would Transport 'Dirty Energy'


The years' long debate over the Keystone XL pipeline arrived at an important moment yesterday. Congress gave final approval for the project after a vote in the House.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On this vote, the yeas are 248, and the nays are 177. The resolution is adopted.

GREENE: That is not the final step. Whether Keystone goes forward is now up to President Obama. He has said he'd veto this bill because the project is still being reviewed by the executive branch.

We've listened to many different views on Keystone, and, this morning, one voice of opposition. This pipeline, if built, will transport heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf Coast. Extracting tar sands oil is an intensive process that produces more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional drilling. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz is director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization, and I asked her what's at stake in this debate.

SUSAN CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: When we talk about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, what we're really talking about is our choice between dirty energy and clean energy. This is about a pipeline that will carry a lot of some of the world's dirtiest oil and cause expansion of the tar sands, but it's also about our energy choices.

GREENE: How much of this debate comes down to symbolism? You know, this goes across a border, it meant that the president would have a say, it gave the environmental community an opportunity to make a stand. I mean, is symbolism and taking a stand a big part of this?

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: You know, some people say that the Keystone XL tar sands battle is just about symbolism, and that, I would say, is not true. It's a very real pipeline. It's carrying a huge amount of dirty oil, if it's get built. It's going to cause expansion of the tar sands. It has a very real and significant impact on climate change. But what we're also talking about is a way to draw a line at future, ever-dirtier sources of oil.

GREENE: Now, supporters of the pipeline say stopping Keystone XL will not impact oil production from the tar sands. The product will make it to market one way or another, they say. But Casey-Lefkowitz says a combination of sinking oil prices and the high cost of transporting tar sands crude is changing the equation.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: Tar sands oil transportation by train or truck is really expensive. The technology needed to make that happen is different than conventional oil, and so it's simply so expensive that even under higher oil prices, it's really not economically feasible. So train and truck is really not an alternative to Keystone XL.

GREENE: I just want to bring in another voice and see what you think of what she says here. She was on the program last year. Her name is Marcia McNutt. She's the editor-in-chief of Science magazine, a pretty influential scientist. And she had changed her mind on Keystone XL and come out in support of the pipeline, and here's one of the reasons that she gave.


MARCIA MCNUTT: Rather than putting the oil in a pipeline, they are now putting the oil on trucks and railway cars. And trucks and trains actually use more fossil fuels themselves to get that crude oil to market than a pipeline.

GREENE: So it sounds like some, like Marcia McNutt, are convinced that it is in some ways an either-or - that if you don't have this pipeline, oil is going to be transported from the tar sands in ways that are maybe even riskier.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: I think that there's a misconception out there that somehow rail is already replacing tar sands pipelines, and it isn't. What we're seeing is that rail and truck are being used for things like oil from the Bakken deposits in North Dakota, but we're really not seeing them yet being used to replace pipelines for tar sands. She might be thinking more of other sources of oil that are newer types of oil, like oil shale.

GREENE: If the president allows this project to go forward, will that have an impact on his relationship with the environmental movement?

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: You know, I actually can't imagine a scenario in which the president allows this project to go forward. It's clear that this pipeline is not in the national interest, and that's what this comes down to.

GREENE: But if - I mean, there are people like the editor of Science magazine, who we heard from, there some Democrats, there are some people who talk about really wanting to protect the environment who have still said that this project does not worry them that much and they could see it going forward. If the president sides with them, which is still an open question, what does that mean for this White House and the environmental movement?

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: The president really stands at a point right now where he has made very strong commitments to fight climate change, and consistency with those commitments means rejecting Keystone XL. And so we're confident that he's going to do what's right, you know, for our communities and our health.

GREENE: Susan, thanks very much for coming in. We appreciate it.


GREENE: That's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz. She's program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.