I’m very much in the minority among my environmentally conscious brothers and sisters in that I am convinced that the Keystone XL pipeline should be approved without further delay. The controversial pipeline resolution was passed today by the US Senate but President Obama has promised to veto its final approval. It would be a mistake for him to do so.
Among the many groups encouraging the President’s veto, the Natural Resource Defense Council lists 5 big reasons why the pipeline should not be completed: 1) transporting “tar sands” bitumen via pipeline is unsafe, 2) burning tar sands oil will contribute greatly to global climate change, 3) tar sands sludge is toxic to human and environmental health, 4) transporting tar sands oil via pipeline will cost American jobs, and 5) approving the Keystone XL pipeline sends the wrong message for the future, which should be less reliance on fossil fuels, not more.
Now I don’t mean to pick on the NRDC, and I agree with some of their points. I certainly wish that we were not gouging great holes in Canadian landscapes to extract the extra-nasty tar sands oil. I wish we weren’t transporting that stuff from Alberta to the Gulf Coast and then on tankers to markets around the world. I wish that if this thing were to go through it would at least create some more jobs than the paltry number projected.
Here’s the problem: we already are.
Evidently, refining tar sands oil (profitably) requires a massive coker unit that uses higher heat and a longer time than lighter oils require. There are 3 such refineries in Canada but 66 in the US, with a concentration on the Gulf Coast. Those cokers run about $2 bn and thusfar no Canadian refineries have made the investment necessary to compete with the refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Those Gulf Coast refineries have been working with tar sands oil for years now. How is it getting there without Keystone XL? Easy:
The above map from the National Wildlife Federation illustrates existing and proposed pipelines for tar sands oil. From Regina to Cushing, that oil is already flowing down Keystone 1. More important, there’s plenty of that oil moving outside of pipelines, too: via truck and rail.
TransCanada is in this for the long haul. There’s little reason to suspect that continued mining for tar sands oil will be contingent on the Keystone XL pipeline. If world markets want that oil, TransCanada will get it to them. Here’s how that increased transport might look without Keystone XL:
So is transport by highway and rail line any better than transport by pipeline? That’s a tough one, but my reading on this says “no”: Given the choice between highway, rail line, or pipeline, I see pipeline as the least problematic. In a “pick your poison” scenario as James Conca reported in Forbes, I’m picking pipeline.
I’m as concerned as anyone about the status of the Ogallala Aquifer, but critical thinking about complex issues starts when we check our emotions at the door. Here’s the opinion of a guy who spent his career studying that aquifer:
“Research hydrogeologist James Goeke, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, who has spent more than 40 years studying the Ogallala Aquifer, phoned TransCanada officials and quizzed them on the project, and satisfied himself that danger to the aquifer was small, because he believes that a spill would be unlikely to penetrate down into the aquifer, and if it did, he believes that the contamination would be localized. He noted: “A lot of people in the debate about the pipeline talk about how leakage would foul the water and ruin the entire water supply in the state of Nebraska and that’s just a false,”  Goeke said “… a leak from the XL pipeline would pose a minimal risk to the aquifer as a whole.””
Returning to those five reasons to oppose Keystone XL, I’m not convinced by any one of them:
1) transporting “tar sands” bitumen via pipeline is unsafe,
2) burning tar sands oil will contribute greatly to global climate change,
3) tar sands sludge is toxic to human and environmental health,
I wouldn’t take a bath in light sweet crude either, but the Ogallala should be buffered against damage from a spill. If anything, the Aquifer is in greater danger right now from potential contamination associated with a truck or rail accident.
4) transporting tar sands oil via pipeline will cost American jobs,
The NRDC’s own post claims that American jobs will be created, just not a whole lot of new jobs.
and 5) approving the Keystone XL pipeline sends the wrong message for the future, which should be less reliance on fossil fuels, not more.
I think the message sent by vetoing the approval is that of bowing to political pressure based on a knee-jerk reaction to “Big Oil.” We should absolutely be investing in alternative energies to wean global economies off fossil fuels, but that’s not the choice here. The choice is to mine the tar sands and ship it to the Gulf Coast via a combination of pipeline, rail, and highway or mine the tar sands and ship it to the Gulf Coast via pipeline. That’s it.
My reading on the topic has convinced me that pipeline completion is the safer and more efficient alternative. It may be the the lesser of two evils but that is the choice before us: evil 1 or evil 2. Should the President call and ask my opinion I’d tell him to pick his battles for choices between clear “goods” and “evils” and use inevitable outcomes like completion of the Keystone XL pipeline as examples of breaking with his party to compromise.