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It’s hard to miss the slow deterioration of Canada’s environmental oversight.

It’s evident in the gutting of environmental assessment. It’s evident in the relentless war on science chronicled by, among others, author Chris Turner.

It’s evident in the new and alarming precedent which allows a nickel plant in Newfoundland to dump its toxic waste directly into a living pond.

And it’s more than clear in the way the debate over Alberta’s oilsands is being framed by those who advocate the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines.

A new U.S. State Department assessment has found, among other things, that the proposed cross-border Keystone pipeline is more environmentally sound than any of the alternatives.

That is, the pipeline would emit less greenhouse gas and result in fewer spills than if the product continued to be transported by rail or tanker truck.

This may be true. But it isn’t the whole picture.

The assessment is based on the principle that oilsands production will continue to expand regardless of whether the pipeline goes through.

In other words, it takes as a given that the dirtiest oil project in the world will continue to expand unchecked. Seen through that lens, the pipeline itself is relatively harmless.

But this is not the main point of those opposed to the pipeline. It’s true that the “green” lobby has attacked the project on many fronts. But it is the inherent endorsement of oilsands development that is the main sticking point for those who oppose it. It is, as they see it, tainted oil.

Britain’s The Guardian hosted an opinion piece by U.S. climatologist Michael Mann Friday that emphasized just that.

 While Canadian pundits seem bent on chiding U.S. President Barack Obama for delaying his decision on the project, Mann says approving the pipeline could be the mistake of Obama’s career.

“If Keystone XL is built, it will be easier to exploit fossil fuel reserves large enough to drastically destabilize the climate,” wrote Mann. “A direct pipeline to refineries and global markets makes the business of polluting the atmosphere that much cheaper and easier.”

Mann sees it as a watershed moment in the U.S.’s message to the world.

“If Obama puts his foot down and tells us the pipeline will not be built, he will be telling the world that the United States is committed to a future powered by clean renewable energy.”

And that is the part of the equation that’s not being addressed by Keystone advocates.

The National Post’s Kelly MacParland wrote Monday that the president should not sacrifice his country’s interests “to a single interest group, no matter how noisy and well-organized.”

Mann sees it differently.

“Protecting us from Keystone XL would protect our atmosphere from one of the most carbon-intensive fuels ever discovered,” he wrote.

“If the president won’t protect us, who is he protecting?”

Organizations: U.S. State Department, National Post

Geographic location: United States, Newfoundland, Alberta Britain

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