If environmentalists had made safety, not emissions, the centerpiece of their political charge against KXL they might have prodded the White House into promoting meaningful new regulations for all oil and gas pipeline operators. Instead, the handful of voices -- led by conservative Nebraskans who gave Obama cover to twice delay a decision -- crying out for more attention to the danger of a spill is lost amid the clamor over the pipeline's contribution to climate change.
Sizing up that contribution demonstrates the second downside of making KXL the rallying point for global-warming action. Rejecting the pipeline would save a maximum of about 180 million tons of carbon dioxide per year -- under the questionable assumption that Canadian production would be permanent and not replaced by crude from a developing world where oil demand is rising. In America, the pipeline "is unlikely to have any impact on the amount" of imported oil, according to an analysis commissioned by the Department of Energy.
In contrast, strong carbon-emissions rules for existing U.S. power plants alone would pay off with guaranteed cuts that grow every year while encouraging industry to invest in cleaner technology and further efficiency measures. By 2020 the total carbon-dioxide savings would reach 563 million tons and push power-industry omissions 26 percent below their 2005 levels, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The same green groups fighting the pipeline are pressing Obama for stricter power-plant pollution standards, and hoped (in vain) that the president might publicly commit to them during his State of the Union address. Meanwhile, this weekend's protest casts KXL as the leading climate-change litmus test for the next four years of an administration. That's a big gamble, since Obama is known to mete out victories and setbacks to fossil fuels in seemingly equal measure. In 2011, for example, the White House punted onnew ozone standards -- score one for oil and gas -- weeks before the EPA released tough new mercury rules. Will environmentalists still celebrate if the White House rejects the pipeline, only to delay or weaken power-plant emissions limits?
Of course, climate activists might run the table in Obama's second term, stopping KXL and championing strong power-plant rules. Even if they only prevail on the pipeline, they appear prepared to embrace a strategy of emulating Republicans' first-term obduracy against Obama -- saying "no" to almost every fossil-fuel infrastructure plan, from oil sands shipments to coal and natural gas exports.
In that event, Sunday's protest will be just the first of many for American greens. Balancing their demands to say "no" to Keystone XL by offering the president a way to say "yes," an affirmative agenda to speed our transition to cleaner energy technology, will be a challenge.