WASHINGTON — The Keystone XL pipeline is a great political symbol. The proposed 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels daily of carbon-heavy crude from Canadas Alberta oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, has galvanized environmental activists, who call it a litmus test for President Barack Obamas commitment to fighting climate change. It is a political weapon against Obama for Republicans, who call it a symbol of job creation and energy security. It has motivated liberal donors, led by the California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has personally urged Obama to reject the pipeline.
On Friday, in what was widely viewed as an acknowledgment of just how potent the politics of Keystone have become, the State Department announced that it would delay the decision on the pipeline for several months, almost certainly until after the midterm elections.
The move was seen as a political punt that would allow pro-Keystone Democratic senators from oil states to court voters by calling for construction of the pipeline, while still keeping Steyers money in the campaign.
But when it comes to the pipelines true impact on global warming, energy and climate change experts - including former Obama administration officials - say Keystones political symbolism vastly outweighs its policy substance.
Protesters rallying with plastic pipelines around the White House draw television spotlights. But the real climate policy work is being done four blocks away, where a squadron of Environmental Protection Agency lawyers is shaping regulations to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants - the nations largest source of carbon pollution - while at meetings in Beijing and Brussels, State Department officials are slogging through negotiations to get other countries to agree to similar cuts.
Experts say Obamas eventual decision on the pipeline will have a marginal impact on global warming emissions, while those dull-sounding EPA rules and treaty talks will determine his environmental legacy.
Consider the numbers: In 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive international data is available, the global economy emitted 32.6 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. The United States was responsible for 5.5 billion tons of that (coming in second to China, which emitted 8.7 billion tons). Within the United States, electric power plants produced 2.8 billion tons of those greenhouse gases, while vehicle tailpipe emissions from burning gasoline produced 1.9 billion tons.
By comparison, the oil that would move through the Keystone pipeline would add 18.7 million metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere annually, the EPA estimated. In other words, the carbon emissions produced by oil that would be moved in the Keystone pipeline would amount to less than 1 percent of United States greenhouse gas emissions, and an infinitesimal slice of the global total.
Within that context, the Keystone pipeline is a rounding error, said Kevin Book, the founder of ClearView Energy Partners, an energy analysis firm.
Experts say that to make a serious dent in American carbon emissions, Obamas administration would have to enact policies that would force the two most polluting sectors of the nations economy - cars and coal plants - to slash their emissions. Obama has already signed a United Nations accord pledging that the United States will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050; there is simply no way to hit those targets, experts say, other than by going after cars and coal. And he then would have to make the case to other nations that the United States had taken action - and that they must, too.
He is making some headway on those fronts. In his first term, Obamas EPA used the authority of the Clean Air Act to issue tough new vehicle fuel-economy standards of 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025. The regulations forced automakers to build fleets of fuel-sippers, and according to the EPA they will lead to a cut of about 180 million tons of carbon a year by 2020, rising to 580 million tons by 2030 and 1.1 billion tons annually by 2050.
The agency is now drafting a regulation, expected in June, to slash pollution from existing coal-fired power plants. Details arent yet available, but experts estimate that it will cut an average of 200 million to 500 million tons of carbon emissions annually within a decade. And the EPA estimated that regulations on building and appliance efficiency have cut or prevented the annual emission of 350 million tons of carbon.
That means the combined impact of the current and forthcoming EPA regulations could lead to cuts of over 1 billion tons of emissions annually.
Thats an order of magnitude more than the 18.7 million tons of carbon that would be added by burning the tar sands oil - and its likely that oil will be brought to market regardless of whether the Keystone is built. That was the finding of a State Department environmental impact study on the project released in January.
Some nongovernmental analysts question that report, saying that if Obama rejected the pipeline it would at least slow production of the oil. But experts say even if that is true, it just doesnt matter much.
Rather than focus on a single piece of infrastructure whose climate change impact is quite limited, as the State Department found, we should focus on the steps the administration can take that would significantly reduce emissions, and by far the biggest is the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate power plant emissions, Jason Bordoff, a former Obama administration official, wrote by email. Until 2013 he was senior director for energy and climate change on the National Security Council staff; he now directs Columbia Universitys Center on Global Energy Policy.
Michael Levi, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that with regulations on power plants and cars and trucks, youre making a change that is likely to stick; with Keystone, youre not.
Secretary of State John Kerry is working aggressively on a 2015 global climate change treaty in which the worlds other major carbon polluters - particularly China and India - would also commit to cuts. And it is domestic actions on coal plants and cars, rather than Keystone, that will give negotiators the leverage they need to extract those pledges.
The regulations on vehicles and power plants - thats going be the centerpiece of what the U.S. can take to the next round of diplomatic talks, said Adele Morris, an energy and climate change policy expert at the Brookings Institution. David Goldwyn, an analyst who ran the Bureau of Energy Resources under former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, commented: By comparison, the decision on Keystone is irrelevant or insignificant. Its a drop in the bucket.
But the EPA regulations come with a host of complications. They will be denounced before midterm elections this year and meet a wave of challenges. Republicans and the coal industry have attacked them as job-killing and a war on coal, and intend to challenge them in Congress and the courts. The rules could lead to closures of many of the nations 600 or so coal plants and imperil the livelihoods of the nations 78,000 coal miners.
And although the regulations are most likely to have a far greater environmental impact than a decision on the Keystone, they havent served to fire up the environmentalist base. The problem with the regulations and global talks is that theyre slow-moving and difficult to understand - they dont come with a tangible physical symbol and a decision directly from the president. In other words, theyre not very good politics.
Thats why, say environmental advocates and donors, their focus on Keystone matters. They can use Keystone to fire up the environmentally minded voters - and to open donor wallets.
Theoretically, the impact of these regulations is huge, said Betsy Taylor, president of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, a Democratic consulting firm that works with political donors interested in climate change.
But in practice, theres a lot of indications that these things will end up with loopholes, she said. Its got to play out at the state level. Whats really compelling about Keystone is that its up or down.
Steyer, the former hedge fund manager who is largely behind putting Keystone on the political map, also founded a super PAC, NextGen Climate, which has spent millions of dollars opposing the pipeline, including television and digital ads targeting politicians who support it.
Steyer put it this way in an email: The Keystone XL pipeline is a line in the sand that signifies whether our country has the courage, the commitment and the capacity to be a global leader in addressing the challenge of climate change before its too late.