President Obama began his second term with a promise to push harder on energy and climate change. The events of the past week remind us that he won't have to contend just with Republicans and coal-state Democrats determined to oppose reasonable measures to combat global warming. He will also have to sidestep environmentalists demanding that he fight the wrong battles.
Last Friday, the State Department released a new draft analysis of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, opposition to which has become a counterproductive obsession of many in the environmental movement. In its 2,000 pages, the report dismantled the case that nixing the Canadian pipeline must be a priority for anyone concerned about climate change, explaining anew that accepting or rejecting the project won't make much difference to global emissions, U.S. oil consumption or world oil markets.
Under anti-Keystone activists' very best scenario — Keystone XL and all other new pipeline capacity restricted — they could hope to reduce Canadian oil-sands production by only 2 to 4 percent by 2030. As long as the world demands oil, energy companies will find it profitable to extract and transport their product in all sorts of ways. If new pipelines are out of the picture, companies will rely more on rail, the use of which they could easily ramp up.
The analysis underscores the extent to which activists have trumped up a relatively mundane infrastructure issue into the premier environmental fight of this decade, leading to big marches and acts of civil disobedience to advance a cause that is worthy of neither. The activists ought to pick more important fights. Until they do, the president should ignore their pressure.
Mr. Obama should also ignore the complaints about Ernest Moniz, whom the president nominated Monday to head the Energy Department. Mr. Moniz, an MIT professor, favors renewable sources of electricity — but also nuclear power and natural gas. That's a sin among some in the environmental movement, although it should not be. Mr. Moniz was right, for example, when he argued that natural gas can help cut the nation's carbon emissions over the next couple of decades, because burning it produces half the emissions of burning coal. What's needed is not knee-jerk opposition to natural gas but, rather, sensible regulations to ensure that communities near well sites are safe and that the country sees the most emissions benefits from its use of the fuel. Mr. Obama so far has taken that course, and we hope his appointment of Mr. Moniz means that he will stay on track.
Instead of indulging in distractions, Mr. Obama and his friends in the environmental movement should push for policies that could make a significant difference by cutting demand for carbon-intensive fuels. As we argued Sunday, a carbon tax is a cause that really is worth fighting for.