The Debate Over Keystone XL

The Debate Over Keystone XL

President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline bill, unsurprisingly. Without getting too bogged down in the political theater of this, I found it to be somewhat more of a “play to the base” type of move than one we would come to expect from such a pragmatist. So, environmentalists and Democrats rejoiced, knowing the Republicans don’t have a veto proof majority, and the Republicans bemoaned and denigrated his decision to veto. Politics as usual, I suppose. That said, let’s take a look at the three big talking points from each side and attempt to analyze them without fear of repercussions from the base.


As a quick summary, the Keystone XL pipeline is the 4th phase of a pipeline that will travel from Hardisty, Canada to Steel City, Nebraska, is 875 mi long, and is intended to replace the current one which travels a farther distance. It is also going to be much larger in diameter. This section of pipeline needs congressional approval because it crosses the border between the U.S. and Canada. The State Department released in its findings that “there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project route.”(ES-18).



Against Keystone XL


Those against the approval of this pipeline have many reasons for opposition but the three I have heard most often are that it will increase damage to the environment through burning of the oil as well as when the inevitable pipeline spill occurs. The second argument is that it only perpetuates our dependence on oil for that much longer, preventing us from moving away from fossil fuels. Lastly, that it depends on the state, through the use of eminent domain, to give up US land to a foreign, private entity for private monetary gain.


The first argument of increased environmental damage is something that we should always be conscious of and making an effort to prevent. In the general idea of extracting and burning fossil fuels, this is an important concern, but as it relates to the pipeline, it’s a poor argument. Preventing the pipeline won’t stop this product from being extracted, transported, refined, or burned. The only way to achieve that is to stop TransCanada from extracting the oil. Since this isn’t likely to happen, we are left with a choice of transporting it by rail, which is seen to carry a higher marginal risk, or by current pipelines which are less efficient (due to diameter and path traveled), older and more prone to leaking, and less cost efficient.


Another argument against the pipeline proposal states that by building the pipeline, we not only continue our dependence on fossil fuels but that we also prevent ourselves from moving towards alternative energy production. This argument is presenting a clear false dilemma. The pipeline can be built while at the same time pursuing better, safer, and friendlier forms of energy production. This is not a zero-sum game here. Given that this pipeline is going to cost taxpayers virtually no money, this means that we still have money to invest in alternative technologies. In addition, this pipeline will have zero affect on our consumption of oil simply because there are already methods of transportation, thereby leaving this oil to be burned despite the pipelines construction. We don’t have to choose, we can have safer transportation of this product AND invest in future clean energy products.


Yet another argument I hear, which I happened to agree with and feel that it is the most problematic one, is the issue of eminent domain. Essentially what eminent domain means is that the government can seize privately held land, with appropriate compensation, in order to use it for projects the government has deemed sufficient. Currently, TransCanada has filed eminent domain paperwork in the state of Nebraska.


I will preface this paragraph by stating that I am wholly unfamiliar with the history of foreign entities and eminent domain. That said, I think that we wade into murky water by allowing a private, foreign business the ability to use eminent domain to take land from private US citizens. I am hesitant to play the slippery slope card, due to the fact that there are a lot of hurdles that must be jumped in order to make it happen. It does however set a precedent and precedents can be quite tricky in future battles.


For Keystone XL


A big argument that proponents of the pipeline articulate is that it will reduce our dependence on oil produced by less-than-friendly countries. Which, to some extent is true; however it would yield a much smaller proportion than many think. According to Glenn Kessler, the fact checker for the Washington Post, “The United States currently imports more oil from Canada than it does from the entire Persian Gulf, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Moreover, oil from the tar sands of Canada is expected to replace crude from Venezuela (which one could argue is not a friendly country) or Mexico. The Middle East is really not part of the equation.” So, while it does reduce our dependence on foreign oil, it’s not the solution it’s made out to be.


Another argument heard often is about how many jobs this will create. Some estimates put the count at around 42,000 though it depends on definition and time frame. Most of this count comes from indirect economic activity associated with the construction. However permanent jobs are far less, roughly around 50. These will consist of operations and maintenance. It is clear jobs will be created, but it certainly isn’t something that will save the economy. So to use this as a foundational argument, while important, isn’t something that can really be considered game changing.


The best argument I’ve heard put forth so far has been in regards to the safety of transportation. Currently, it’s a neck and neck race as to which method is the “safest” but when choosing between rail and pipeline; the winner must go to pipeline. A Washington Post article, penned by Christopher Ingram, discusses the statistics behind both methods. He concludes that while neither are great methods “the rate of accidents per billion barrels is significantly higher for rail, and it also fluctuates more year to year.”


His piece is very important to this discussion for the simple fact that when it comes down to it, we want an ideal way to transport the most oil for the least amount of cost, the safest. Sure, we need to move away from oil, this is happening and despite what many of my friends and compatriots say, stopping this pipeline isn’t going to do anything to reduce the use of that oil in reality. In fact, it’s going to make the transportation of that oil, riskier, albeit marginally. However, even if it is a 5 or 10% reduction in potential damage to the environment, I am ok with this, especially since it doesn’t involve taxpayer money to make it happen. That means more money is left over to put towards alternative energies. We just need to make sure that happens.


So how do we do that? Well, an article published in Bloomberg View on Wednesday touches on this very idea. Interestingly enough, one, Michael R. Bloomberg wrote it. His argument essentially came down to this: “The Canadian government has been pressing the White House to approve the pipeline, which would bring many more economic benefits to Canada than it would to the U.S. That gives the White House enormous leverage, which it should use to negotiate a broader, climate-friendly deal that far more than offsets the potential impact of the pipeline.”


Mr. Bloomberg is 100% right on this idea. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that this is one of Obama’s major pitfalls as President. He doesn’t view each issue as a gateway to another. They are independent of everything else and must be handled accordingly. If Obama understood how to properly leverage these types of debates, far more could have been done, and in a bi-partisan manner.


With all of this understood, where does this writer stand on this topic? I lean towards accepting the proposal. I would first want to make sure that this specific case of eminent domain is understood to have very specific needs and reasons. I would also want to make sure that if people are to be compensated, that they are fully and wholly compensated. I also think that it is a pro-environmental decision to allow it. Stopping the pipeline will only force this company to transport this hazardous material in a more dangerous way. Yes, there isn’t a “safe” way to transport it, but if it’s coming out, pipeline or not, I want it to be moved in the safest way possible. As far as I can tell, the pipeline is the best way.


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Clinton Hermann

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. ~Thomas Jefferson

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2 Responses to The Debate Over Keystone XL

  1. On a whole, I agree this issue has become more about creating a political symbol rather than a effecting huge change from this single pipeline. But sometimes we need symbols to help effect political change. Until our lawmakers weigh the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels, consumer and citizen habits won’t change because it doesn’t make micro-economic sense.

    Additionally, accidents per billion barrel less important than the amount of oil spilled per billion barrel (link to your source needs to be fixed). The article you referenced mentions the overall spilled amount per billion barrels. However, it doesn’t do a good job of highlighting that over time, pipeline spills have historically spilled 3 times more oil per billion barrels transported (2004-2012). ( p. 134)
    While 2013 was a bad year with a bad accident, the article seems to suggest that it is safer overall. I guess that depends on the definition of safety.

    I know a lot of people think we should be moving away from oil, but I am curious how you think we moving away from oil in a meaningful way within the united states.

    • Dave, that is a very good point you bring up and one that I failed to recognize how depending on which statistic you look at, accidents per billion vs. amount of oil spilled per billion, can change how you argue the point. I would also want to try to factor in the costs associated with both forms of spills as this is another aspect that is important.

      Im not exactly sure of your question here, did you mean to ask me how I think we are moving away from oil or how we make the move away from oil?

      I don’t think we are moving fast enough away from oil. I also think that while symbolic moves are helpful, using smaller issues like this can help leverage you to gain larger successes in the future. Things that will equate to more serious and effective shifts in policy and use.

      As to your potential second question, I would like to see far more money invested into R&D for all sorts of alternative energy ideas. Of course, with a portion of congress who thinks climate change is some nefarious plot enacted by the liberals and scientists to separate people from their freedom and money, it’s going to make achieving this VASTLY more difficult.

      I also fixed that link, not sure how that happened!

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