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When an ExxonMobil-owned pipeline spilled crude oil across backyards in Arkansas recently, the debate over what had happened turned strangely but not unexpectedly to Keystone XL, the proposed pipeline extension project that would bring Canadian crude across the center of the United States to the high-tech, world-class refineries that line the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

On the face of it, Keystone should be one of the most boring stories in the energy business. An infrastructure project in a country desperate for upgrades to its energy infrastructure (and the jobs they bring), built by a firm headquartered in the closest possible U.S. ally, it would carry the raw material for fuels and products that are used every day and the price of which can whipsaw the global and national economy. Until recently, Keystone was the perfect energy project: The technology isn’t challenging, the financing is transparent, the origin of the product is friendly, and the operator adherent to the most stringent standards of safety.

But Keystone has become much more than just another energy project. It has become a moral litmus test, a symbol for all sorts of affiliated debates that the political elite has proved unwilling to engage with directly, ranging from global warming to the place of renewable energy in the transportation sector and even the roles played by agencies, states and presidents in our convoluted permitting process.

Like Rene Magritte’s famous Surrealist work “The Treachery of Images” — depicting a pipe, with the words “This is not a pipe” written underneath in French — Keystone has entered the realm of the surreal, of politics and morality rather than economics. Unfortunately, this means that the more truly pertinent question of whether it makes business, energy and environmental sense to build Keystone in the first place has been ignored in favor of posturing by everyone from otherwise unemployed Kennedy scions to oil executives who use it to rail against the Obama administration.

The fact is that TransCanada and its investors and partners would like to risk their own capital to build this pipeline, and as long as they follow the rules, and as long as our exhaustive review proves the project to be viable and safe, they should be allowed to do so. The expanding scope of the debate surrounding Keystone has, it seems, made it impossible for observers to disconnect sprawling rhetorical questions from what should be, at its heart, a question of black-and-white merit and empirically measurable viability.

Questions related to our infrastructure, or our energy needs, are inherently straightforward at their root. They hinge on safety, economics, environmental impact and policy feasibility.

Canadian officials have repeatedly suggested that if the United States doesn’t want the oil, they can just as easily ship it to China or other Asian countries not as blessed with alternative energy resources as North America. In anything but a zero-sum world economy made up of a single winning superpower and a world of dependent losers, that kind of trade potentially makes far more sense, distributing the required raw material to the parts of the world where it garners the highest price.

But a clear-eyed view of the Keystone pipeline’s economics and the proper long-term market for the crude oil already being pumped out of the ground in Canada is impossible to obtain amid the sound and fury of the political debate over these several hundred miles of pipe. If TransCanada wants to take a risky bet, it should be allowed to risk its money in accordance with the law — and the cleanup of backyards in Arkansas and the inevitable fines paid by ExxonMobil shouldn’t be its problem.

Dialogue and debate is good. But it must not be allowed to take the place of reason and fact.

Peter Gardett is founding editor of Breaking Energy and AOL Energy.

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