Keystone XL: A pipeline to a new future?

Opinion by Johnathan Bowes
Jan. 19, 2015, 9:44 p.m.

President Obama should veto the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Approving the pipeline is extraordinarily unsafe and sends a message that the United States is not serious about fighting climate change.

The Keystone XL pipeline is the fourth and final phase of the already existing Keystone pipeline network, and it will be constructed on highly sensitive land. This network goes from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast and is used to transport a dirty and carbon-heavy form of petroleum, known as tar sands. The biggest question we face when deciding whether to approve the pipeline or not will be: Do we want to risk permanently contaminating one of the world’s largest fresh water supplies?

Unlike the other phases of the Keystone project, the XL pipeline will traverse highly sensitive land and thereby make an oil spill all the more severe. While TransCanada has redirected the route away from the Nebraska Sandhills in an effort to appease environmentalists, the proposed pipeline would go over the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies undermost of Nebraska. This aquifer provides nearly 2 million people with fresh drinking water and supports $20 billion in agriculture. Unlike other sources of fresh water, this aquifer is very close to the surface, so any spill would most likely contaminate a large section of this aquifer. A report from the Nebraska Wildlife Foundation noted, “Some portions of the aquifer are so close that any pipeline leak would almost immediately contaminate a large portion of the water.” The pipeline also crosses seismically active areas that have experienced as powerful as a 4.3 earthquake as recently as 2002.

Oil pipelines, in general, will inevitably leak. In fact, the first phases of the Keystone pipeline had 14 leaks in its first year, and even a pin-sized hole in a pipeline can result in thousands of gallons of spilled oil. In addition to this inherent risk of using pipelines to transport oil, TransCanada does not intend to use the latest safety technology that would detect oil leaks. A company unwilling to take these necessary precautions should not be given permits to build a risky pipeline that could have extremely dangerous consequences.

Lastly, the first three phases of the Keystone pipeline are operational and currently deliver oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The XL pipeline would merely expedite that process by taking a shortcut through the Ogallala Aquifer. Risking contamination of the aquifer for expediency is irrational, to put it generously.

However, approving the Keystone XL pipeline not only risks our water supplies, but also our planet’s health in the future. According to the overwhelming judgment of science, nearly 33 percent of this planet’s oil must stay untouched, in the ground, if we want to effectively tackle climate change. Approving Keystone XL sends a message that the United States is not serious about meeting this goal. The United States should take the lead on solving climate change to show the world that our actions match our rhetoric and that pursuing environmentally friendly policies does not weaken economic growth.

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline argue that it will create jobs and promote economic growth. Analysis has shown that there may be a few construction jobs created, but after the pipeline is built, the project will only leave several dozen permanent jobs. Contrary to popular belief, the refined oil from the Keystone XL pipeline would most likely go outside of the United States to foreign countries, like China. Constructing the pipeline will produce few direct benefits for the U.S. economy.

Furthermore, advocates of the pipeline will argue that the oil will be pumped regardless of whether the XL pipeline is built. This may be true, but it will be pumped at a slower rate because transporting oil via train and other segments of the Keystone pipeline is slower than transporting it via the XL pipeline.

Keeping as much oil in the ground as possible and for as long as possible is important. The planet is at a tipping point, and the United States should be vigorously trying to negate the effects of climate change.

Senator Boxer was correct in saying that XL means “extra lethal.” The proposed XL pipeline has a very high likelihood of damaging one of the most important aquifers in the United States. Meanwhile, the benefits are minimal. If the XL pipeline was built, the winner would be China because it would not incur any risk and yet gain more access to oil. President Obama should reject the planned pipeline not only to send a message, but to also prevent an ecological catastrophe.

Contact Matthew Cohen at mcohen18 ‘at’ 

For the last six years, the Keystone XL pipeline debate has dragged on to the point of silliness. As even Jon Stewart points out, TransCanada’s proposed final addition to their existing international pipeline system has become the entrenched battle we see today due more to environmental activists turning it into a cause célèbre than to actual concerns about the pipeline itself.

At long last, though, it seems that some sort of final resolution of that fight might come soon. The State Department has given other agencies until February 2 to give feedback on the current iteration of the Keystone XL plan, now that the route snakes around the Sandhills and most of the Ogallala Aquifer. The Obama administration will have little excuse to delay a decision on the pipeline expansion much longer at that point, particularly given two looming decisions that could sidestep the administration altogether. The Republican-controlled Congress wants to bypass the President and approve the plan on its own, but TransCanada may bypass the U.S. altogether by building a bigger, Canada-only pipeline called Energy East to bring Alberta’s bitumen (or oil/tar sands) to New Brunswick for refining.

Recent polling suggests that 57 percent of people in the US (and about two-thirds of people in both the Midwest and South, where the pipeline would run) support the Keystone XL plan, and the State Department has estimated that the Keystone XL pipeline would create about 42,000 jobs here in the U.S. Taken with the fact that blocking it would do nothing to prevent bitumen extraction in Alberta with TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline on the horizon, the pressure is on the White House to do the right thing by permitting the project.

But Obama’s decision on Keystone XL shouldn’t be the end of the story. After all, we still have to build the thing — and that puts thousands of miles of private property and sacred lands right in the crosshairs of TransCanada. And those need to be taken into consideration before a single section of the new pipeline goes into the earth.

In building another part of the wider Keystone pipeline system, TransCanada has taken advantage of a special exception written into state laws that allows firms building “common carrier” pipelines to seize private land via eminent domain. While some landowners have successfully fought off the seizure of their land, they are the exception rather than the norm. And along the path of the XL extension, TransCanada intends to use the same eminent domain power even as landowners are already bringing them to court.

Additionally, sixteen Native tribes have asked the Obama administration to either delay deciding on Keystone XL until an authority in South Dakota investigates the latest route for the pipeline or reject the pipeline outright. They hold that the plan as it is now would harm sacred and other culturally significant sites for their peoples.

When it comes to Keystone XL, or any significant infrastructure project requiring governmental input, the actual or potential effects on the people who live, work or worship in the path of the project should be considered just as important as factors like the cost, environmental impact and public opinion. After all, those are the people who most directly have to live with the consequences of a project like Keystone XL for generations. Ethically speaking, those people (in this case, the landowners and Native peoples whose lands are at risk of seizure) need as large a voice in proceedings as TransCanada or President Obama.

So far, they haven’t had that voice — or if they have, it hasn’t been heard. And that needs to change.

First and foremost, TransCanada needs to get that message. While an outright rejection on ethical grounds might seem an appropriate way to do so, it would probably encourage the development of Energy East more than spark consideration of individual property rights and the free exercise of religion, if it does the latter at all. Instead, the Obama administration should look at the specific concerns raised by the tribes in South Dakota and the landowners in Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Montana and grant TransCanada a conditional approval of the pipeline — conditional on an agreement between the company and those groups that each finds acceptable. Such a provisional approval would hopefully provide enough of an assurance to TransCanada that they wouldn’t abandon Keystone XL for Energy East, but at the same time, it helps to keep the rights of our First Peoples and Midwest landowners at the forefront of the conversation.

But that process would only be a first step. These issues about the improper use of eminent domain and about the rights of Native American nations will keep coming up unless we make a commitment to deal with them them. Moving forward, people throughout the country (and particularly, it seems, in the Midwest and South) should take a closer look at our states’ eminent domain laws and make sure they strike the right balance between the rights of individuals and actual public good. Moving forward, our courts should reexamine the precedent set by Lyng vs. Northwest Indian CPA and start considering Native religions on their own terms rather than those of the Old World. Moving forward, we need to make sure that the next time some big project comes down the pipe, we’re ready to handle it ethically.

Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’

Johnathan Bowes (also known as JoBo) is a senior and premed majoring in Science, Technology, and Society. Originally from Sacramento, he went to high school in Chattanooga, TN. Besides writing for The Daily, he also works for El Aguila, Stanford's only Latin@ interest and culture magazine. He's also an avid fan of black tea, Game of Thrones, and Spanish literature. Follow him on Twitter @JohnathanBowes.

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