By Sarah Myers
Happy Thanksgiving! You’ve probably already given thanks for your family, your friends, your food — now might be a good time to give thanks for not living in certain parts of South Dakota (unless you do, in which case you have my sincere condolences). The residents of Amherst, South Dakota recently woke up to find that 210,000 gallons of oil had leaked from the Keystone XL Pipeline and flooded grasslands in private property near the town.
The Keystone project was controversial from its very inception. The idea behind the project is simple: Alberta tar sands in Canada have a lot of oil. The U.S. likes oil, but doesn’t like buying it from the Middle East. Keystone XL, the story goes, connects Alberta tar sands to Nebraska and increases the amount of oil available to the U.S. from non-Middle Eastern sellers. Fun but unimportant fact: This pipeline is called Keystone XL because the plain old Keystone pipeline already exists. Keystone XL connects the same endpoints as Keystone but uses an alternate route and will have a larger capacity.
That story had a few plot holes. First, life finds a way — and so does oil. People in the industry and out of it repeatedly noted that oil companies were using rail transport to get oil from Alberta to America prior to construction of the pipeline. Thus, the project was never going to increase the amount of oil entering the U.S. by a large enough amount to affect prices.
Additionally, the Alberta tar sands do contain oil, but they also contain fragile ecosystems which are seriously damaged by oil extraction. And even after the oil is extracted and refined, its use further damages our environment as a whole. Allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to go forward is a tacit commitment to further development of the Alberta tar sands, and thus a tacit commitment to further damaging our environment for the sake of cheap energy. Once, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the U.S. was modelling itself as a leader in the world’s fight against climate change. Good thing we don’t have to worry about that anymore, I suppose.
The last thing, and originally the most powerful argument for the pipeline’s construction, is the same thing it always is: jobs. Jobs for good, hard-working Americans, to be precise. Unfortunately, Keystone XL doesn’t actually have very many jobs to offer. The funny thing about construction jobs on projects like building a pipeline is that they are (if everything works out alright) temporary. Only 35 permanent jobs will be created by Keystone XL.
Ultimately, the pipeline was never going to improve the American economy. It was not going to create jobs or improve oil prices. The structure itself was clearly at risk for disastrous oil spills, and the oil transported in the pipe will be used in ways that increase air pollution and exacerbate global warming.
Americans, for reasons I can’t pretend to understand, continued to support Keystone XL. The Pew Research Center found that roughly 66 percent of respondents wanted the projected to go forward.
After last week’s spill, I naively assumed that Keystone XL’s slow creep through the American heartland would slow down, at least temporarily. Nebraska’s Public Services Commission was due to make a decision on whether to allow the pipeline to be built, and it seemed impossible for a committee focused on the public’s best interests would say yes to a pipeline that had just spewed oil all over the countryside. The mainstream media egged me on, publishing articles like “Keystone pipeline spill injects new uncertainty into Nebraska decision.”
We were wrong. The commission voted yes.
Admittedly, it was a qualified yes. The commission approved the project but did not approve the preferred route, adding confusion and costs for TransCanada (the company financing this mess). Furthermore, there are still major hurdles standing between Keystone XL and completion, including activist opposition in court and more regulations and red tape.
So we can all be thankful for bureaucracy and rules! It might be good to do something in addition to that, though. Voting against politicians who support Keystone XL and other fossil-fuel promoting projects is a great start.
You can also donate to groups like the National Resource Defense Council and Tar Sands Blockade are taking energy companies to court in order to use the laws we have today to protect the environment, and lobbying for more protective legislation. Projects like Keystone XL increase corporate profits at the expense of the public good, and it’s time to stand up for ourselves and our environment.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.