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President Obama is feeling election-year pressure over the Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans say this project to spread a pipeline across the United States from Canada would provide the U.S. with oil and new jobs, but environmentalists want the president to block the project. They say Alberta, Canada's oil sands generate more greenhouse gases than other kinds of oil, and they say Americans must not become dependent on such a dirty source of energy. Frankly, it may already be too late to prevent that. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is Burnaby, British Columbia, a quiet suburb just east of Vancouver. Tucked in among the ranch houses is the terminal for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which brings in oil from Alberta. For decades, that oil was mainly consumed here in the Vancouver region. But that is now changing.

BEN WEST: We've seen this huge increase of tanker traffic.

KASTE: Ben West is an anti-oil tanker activist with a group called the Wilderness Committee. He says when the pipeline company Kinder Morgan bought this facility in 2005 it started to shift the focus to exports, primarily to the American West Coast.

WEST: We went from 22 tankers in 2005, up to 79. I mean, at least 700,000-barrel tankers that are now coming through the Burrard Inlet, which, you know, passes through the, you know, most populated areas of British Columbia.

KASTE: The pipeline also has a branch that crosses the border, feeding crude oil to refineries in Washington state. Kinder Morgan is now exploring the possibility of doubling the pipeline's capacity. Ben West calls this the quiet repurposing of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. And because of it, oil sands gasoline is now fueling cars from Seattle to San Francisco.

PHILIP VERLEGER: With prices around a hundred dollars a barrel globally, that oil's going to make it to the market somehow.

KASTE: Philip Verleger is an economist specializing in oil markets. He says even if environmentalists can convince President Obama to block the Keystone XL pipeline, it won't stop the growth of production in the Canadian oil sands.

VERLEGER: Development may be slowed for a year or two. But one can move the oil west on the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline. They could expand pipelines east. Those pipelines already exist, and they can be expanded.

KASTE: In fact, the Enbridge company recently asked Canadian regulators for permission to reverse the direction of one of its pipelines in Ontario, which many see as the first step to move more Canadian oil to the American East Coast and relieve some of the Canadian oil glut in the upper Midwest.

Back in Burnaby, activist Ben West is well aware of the spider's web of pipelines that export oil from Alberta. But that doesn't make him any less opposed to the Keystone XL.

WEST: So, I mean, I think it's true that the Keystone pipeline is not the only way that the oil is making its way to market, you know, and there's definitely enough demand that if one of these gets built, people are still going to want to build the other ones. But, you know, we really need to turn that around.

KASTE: But demand is the key, say most economists. If you can get American drivers to buy less gas - for example, by raising fuel efficiency standards, as the Obama administration recently did - then, they say, you stand a much better chance of slowing down production in the oil sands.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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