A River (of Disgrace) Runs Through It


by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

What will cost $7 billion; will snake across the country from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, carrying 700,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude oil; and seems (at least from the animated assertions of Congressional Republicans and the American Petroleum Institute) a perfect solution for the flagging U.S. economy?

Answer: TransCanada’s Keystone oil sands pipeline expansion project.  Imagine a river of dirty oil running right through the country’s mid-section.

The GOP burbles about the 10,000 jobs in each of two years it will take to build the pipeline, the more than 100,000 spin-off jobs, the $5 billion in property tax revenues, the $20 billion pumped into the US economy over the project’s 100-year lifetime, the future energy security of the United States, and all the safety and environmental protocols that will be in place to prevent a disastrous oil spill.  From all the gobbledygook, you’d think that this is a panacea for all our economic woes – just what the doctor ordered for his ailing patient.

The pre-Christmas congressional tax deal (yup – yet another messy stunt by our representatives to wed two unrelated topics for political gain rather than for any meaningful resolution) includes a provision to force the president’s hand before the upcoming national election.  Either President Obama approves the pipeline, thereby alienating his environmental base, or he rejects it, having to explain why the United States does not need all that oil.  Why can’t Congress simply conduct separate votes for separate issues rather than hog-tie the nation to its petty machinations?

Once again, it’s a sleight of hand on behalf of the outdated carbon-based industry.  Or shall we call it “fuzzy math?”

The assertion about jobs is bunk.  Various studies by the U.S. State Department, Cornell University, and others strongly suggest a much lower jobs number – perhaps a net loss of jobs for the big picture.  If approved, the project may stifle the creation of new jobs in our emerging green economy, at least for the short term.  When will we cease our decades-old efforts to prop up the antiquated and bloated carbon-based industry and move aggressively toward sustainable energy solutions?  In its 2010 report, the Natural Resources Defense Council stated, “the Keystone XL Pipeline undermines the U.S. commitment to a clean energy economy.”  Like coal and natural gas, petroleum is a dirty and costly fuel from which we must wean ourselves … yesterday.

The assertion about safety and environmental protocols is also bunk.  We’ve heard those promises before – the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, the 2010 mishap with the Trans-Alaska pipeline, and others quickly come to mind.  Pipelines are generally considered the safest way to transport oil.  Yet portions of the project will cross an active seismic zone that had a 4.3 magnitude earthquake as recently as 2002.  (The earthquake along the East Coast in August 2011 had a 5.8 magnitude.)  Portions will also cross the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest reserves of freshwater in the world, that spans eight states, provides drinking water for 2 million people, and support $20 billion in agriculture.  As a nation, are we willing to take this risk with an industry proven unworthy and avaricious over and over again?

We all understand reasonable risk, but adding unnecessary risk to an unsustainable industry with revenues already in the billions of dollars, and we have only one thing: a disgrace.  Let’s move instead toward aggressive support for renewable energy solutions such as solar, geothermal, wind, and hydropower.  (For example, sunlight bestows a whopping 12 trillion watt-hours per square mile per year.  Clearly, there is enough solar energy to fulfill humanity’s energy requirements forever.  Of course, the key will be to develop efficient and cost-effective technologies to convert solar power into usable energy.  So let’s put people to work on those technologies!)  Though it’s hard to estimate accurate jobs figures for the renewable industry, as an emerging market, it will likely employ more than 2.5 million people by 2025.  For comparison, the U.S. oil and natural gas industries supported more than 9 million jobs in 2007 with a total value-added contribution to the national economy of more than $1 trillion, or 7.5% of the U.S. gross domestic product.  For reasons of a healthy planet and sustainable lifestyles, however, the emphasis of the economic goals for every nation on the planet needs to be no-carbon (or at least low-carbon) industries phased in as carbon-based industries are phased out in sensible strategic fashion.

The contention that such a project will provide energy security is yet another piece of bunk.  First, much of our imported oil comes from nations friendly toward the United States.  Second, the proposed pipeline will connect with refineries along the Gulf owned and operated by companies that will sell their oil to the highest bidder – whether the United States, China, Japan, or any other oil-ravenous nation.  Third, the U.S. is now on track to become a net exporter of refined oil products for the first time in decades.  Thus, because of the nature of global oil markets and domestic supplies, the Keystone XL pipeline will likely contribute very little to energy independence in the United States.

Let’s adopt a Hippocratic Oath for the natural resources of the United States: do no intentional harm to our patient, viz., our home planet, Earth.  The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is a disgraceful and distracting proposal from a greedy, antiquated, carbon-based industry.  We KNOW it will cause harm from the get-go, if only because of its intrinsic greenhouse gases.  Do we really wish to divide our country by a dirty river of oil?  It will be a river of disgrace for 100 years.  Then what?