Thursday, May 15, 2014

What about the Keystone Pipeline?

The Keystone Pipeline, in the news for years, is currently a much debated topic in Congress and across the nation. There are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. And like in so many matters, the debate is largely between “conservatives” and “liberals.”
Keystone Pipeline is the name of the oil pipeline system in Canada and the United States. It runs from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Nebraska, Illinois and the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Three phases of the project are in operation, and the fourth is awaiting U.S. government approval. The latter, and the phase that has been so much in the news recently, is the Keystone XL Pipeline. (“XL” stands for “eXport Limited.”)

The first two phases were completed in 2010 and 2011 and the third phase in January of this year. Phase 1 included pipes laid from Nebraska across Missouri to Illinois. Many times I saw that construction in the country north of Clay County where I live, but I had no idea it was part of the Keystone Pipeline.

Phase 4 was proposed in 2008. It was approved in Canada (and South Dakota) in 2010, but later that year the Environmental Protection Agency raised serious questions, and in 2011 the Department of State postponed making a decision to approve the new construction.

The main arguments favoring construction of the fourth phase are: (1) The XL Pipeline would create jobs and stimulate the U.S. economy. (2) It would enhance energy security and support energy independence.

Although it is not usually explicitly said, one of the main reasons why many wealthy people (and people beholden to them) support the new pipeline is that it would make them wealthier.

In a related argument, a recent article in Forbes magazine declares, “Keystone XL should be built because we want the private sector to be free to do as it chooses sans government meddling” (5/4/14).

As usual, the conservatives (most Republicans) are on the side of the wealthy and opposed to government regulations and any curbs on “free enterprise.”

Similarly, there are two main reasons for opposing the plans for the fourth phase of the Keystone XL Pipeline. There are mainly environmental concerns, although not directly related:

(1) There is the threat of spills leading to massive contamination of water used for drinking, irrigation, and livestock watering. (2) It would lead to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting in acceleration of global warming.

Also as usual, the liberals (most Democrats) are on the side of protecting the environment and combating global warming—even though the Forbes article referred to environmentalists as still being “caught up in a global warming delusion.”

In the short haul, building the XL Pipeline would likely be beneficial to the country. But in thinking of the future, it is most likely to be unwise. Unfortunately, most politicians feel the necessity for short-term, current-benefit thinking.

The President is caught between the long-range benefits of disapproving and the short-term benefits of approving. My guess is he wants to prohibit the XL Pipeline, which would be good for the country in the long haul, but he realizes it would be detrimental to his party this year.

That, most likely, is why he keeps kicking the can down the road, as they say.

But I sincerely hope the President will keep listening to the voices of such people as Bill McKibben and the organization. They are representative of those who are seeking the long term well-being of the planet.


  1. Leroy, thanks for the post. The only reason to curb free enterprise, economists tell us, is because of the externalities created by independent firms' exercise of their own freedom. Their choices, which have some immediate benefits to them and to all of us, also cause long-term harm. The question is the trade-offs between long-term harm and short term benefits, as you rightly note. Since the environment is our main source of economic benefit, harming it in the long-term is really, really unwise. Can we curb our glut for oil enough to cease the degradation of the environment? Maybe we need to take Irshad Manji's course on Moral Courage and simply do what we know to be the right thing.

    1. Milton, thanks for your helpful comments. I didn't know anything about Irshad Manji, so I was happy to learn about her. She sounds like an impressive person.

  2. Here are helpful comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks for your very informative blog. As much as I would like to get away from fossil fuels, the XL pipeline is probably preferable to the alternative, which is shipment by rail. The tar sands oil, a very dirty business indeed, will either be sent to the west coast of Canada for transport by tanker to Asia, or to the U S by pipeline and then within the U S by either pipeline or rail car.

    "Since transport by rail car is much more dangerous, the pipeline seems to be the lesser of two evils. The increase in oil shipments by rail car has increased tremendously in the last few years with some disastrous results. (Oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota will continue to be shipped by rail for the foreseeable future.)

    "What America really needs is a carbon tax with some teeth. This would allow alternative sources of energy to be more competitive (i.e., no government subsidies would be needed) and also encourage conservation (i.e., if oil was under $70 a barrel, the tar sands operation would be uneconomical).

    "It is almost criminal that the average car in Europe gets twice as many MPG (37 vs. 18 or 19) as the average U S car, although we are beginning to catch up. Europe is far ahead of us in the field of energy conservation and both Europe and China will eventually eat our shorts in the field of alternative fuel technologies.

    "Construction of the XL pipeline might create 4,000 temporary jobs at best. The boost to the economy from its construction is greatly overblown.

    "Unfortunately, under Steven Harper, Canada is becoming a petrostate.

    "That's my two cents."

    1. Eric, thanks for your "helpful comments," as I said when I introduced them.

      I agree that a carbon tax is badly needed, but with the ongoing emphasis of the Tea Party against no new taxes, that seems pretty unlikely at this point.

      And while I agree that there needs to be more emphasis on conservation--such as is true in Europe and also in Japan--I am not optimistic about seeing much happening in that regard either.

  3. For a long time now a couple of thoughts keep entering my mind about this.

    1. There are already some tar sand crude pipelines, coming from Canada, in the U.S. So far, they have a dismal record when it comes to breaks/spills.

    2. If exporting the oil is such a swell idea - why don't the Canadians run a pipeline to one of their own ports?

    3. Seems the states/counties being pressured (Read: U.S. taxpayers.) to approve the route and refinery facilities are also expected to bear the brunt of all the hazards - with the Canadians - and super-rich U.S. investors - being freed from all liability.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson gave me permission to post his comments here:

    "Well done, Leroy. I've been happy to see resistance to the pipeline in Nebraska, a very conservative state, which points up the risk factor. Ayn Rand is the Republican bible: no limits on big business!"

  5. Here are comments, posted with his permission, from Rob Daoust, my Canadian-born son-in-law:

    "I would cast in my vote with the Donkeys on this debate.

    "I read McKibben's book "Oil and Honey" this past February. It was engaging and informative.

    "On the other hand if I was a young Canadian man who was looking for a job I would be tempted to head up to Fort McMurray and sign up to drive one of the oil sands trucks and earn more than FIVE times what a teacher earns in a year - $170.000.

    "As you already know the big money will be made from exporting this product from the Gulf of Mexico to China and other countries.

    "The Koch Brothers are known for many things — their vast financial empire, their conservative political ideology, their active political involvement, their support of the Keystone XL pipeline — but their Alberta, Canada, land ownership has not been as widely discussed.

    "A Washington Post feature has brought this subject back to attention as the Keystone XL debate heats up and discussion over the relationship between the Koch Brothers and their Republican allies takes on even greater significance in an important election year.

    "According to the Washington Post, which uses a report from the activist group the International Forum on Globalization as a foundation, a Koch Industries subsidiary holds leases on 1.1 million acres in the northern Alberta oil sands, an area nearly the size of Delaware. The Post confirmed the group’s findings with Alberta Energy, the provincial government’s ministry of energy.

    “'What is Koch Industries doing there?' asks the Washington Post. 'The company wouldn’t comment on its holdings or strategy, but it appears to be a long-term investment that could produce tens of thousands of barrels of the region’s thick brand of crude oil in the next three years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of barrels a few years after that.'

    "And so on and so forth...."

    1. Rob, thanks for your informative comments.

      I checked out McKibben's "Oil and Honey" because you mentioned it. (Unfortunately, I didn't get to read but just a bit of it.) And now I have learned about The International Forum on Globalization (IFG) from you.

      According to their website, IFG "promotes equitable, democratic, and ecologically sustainable economies." Their report--which is 40 pages long!--is available online also.

      One part of that report is titled "Victims' Voices Speak about Koch Greed," and it includes five sections: "Poisoning the Poor," "Conspiracy and Concealment," "Negligence, with Malice," "Oil theft from Native Americans," and "Putting Pipelines through Organic Family Farms."

      I have read only a small part of that report, but it certainly increases my opposition to the Keystone LX Pipeline. Thanks for calling this to my (our) attention.

    2. I should have mentioned that the IFG report is titled, "Billionaires' Carbon Bomb: The Koch Brothers and the Keystone XL Pipeline."

  6. The newest addition to my Thinking Friend mailing list is a person I have known about as long as anyone else on the list. I knew Nancy Tulloch (Hoch) in 1951-52. She was my pastor's daughter. This month June and I met her and had a delightful visit with her--the first time I had seen her since '51-'52. I was happy to receive the following comments for her, with posting permission:

    "Although I've heard arguments regarding the pipeline, and agree with the environmentalists, I am not sure what would happen if the rest of the pipeline is stopped. The oil companies will surely want to get the oil to its intended destination, so will the oil be transferred to trucks and/or trains? Would either of those choices be an improvement over the pipeline?

    "Having lived in the Louisiana oil patch for 20 years I am sure of one thing: the oil industry will do whatever is necessary to get the oil transported to where they want it. And, unfortunately, as long as we are an oil-guzzling nation, there will probably never be enough push from environmentally-minded groups to stop them.

    "Even if Obama stops it, it's a short 2 1/2 years until his successor and/or congress could reverse his ruling. I don't have a lot of optimism here."

  7. My son Keith sent the following comments (and his permission to post them), which I am happy to share here:

    "I have three main concerns:

    "1. Oil needs to be transported (at least based on the way the world is organized now), so the question is not whether pipelines have spills but do they spill less of the oil they move than trains, which are the other option. I’m seeing information suggesting that trains are more dangerous, esp. in populated areas.

    "2. The Canadian oil is going to go somewhere and if it doesn’t flow to the U.S., plans are being developed to ship it all the way across Canada and then on to China, which must be a lot less efficient with more likelihood of spills along the way.

    "3. Finally, mention of wealthy people seemed entirely gratuitous (and besides, “they” own the trains, too). A society generating wealth is a good thing; how that wealth is distributed is a separate question."

    1. Keith, it may be true that pipeline spills are perhaps fewer and less damaging than train accidents, so, as Eric said above, perhaps pipelines are the lesser of two evils. Of course, spills are only one of the problems with pipelines, as the IFG report points out (see my reply to Rob above).

      I don't have anything to say about your second point.

      My main disagreement with what you wrote was with your third point. You said my mention of wealthy people seemed entirely "gratuitous," which the dictionary says means "uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted." But I wonder if your statement is gratuitous.

      Certainly "they" own the trains, too. But "they" must consider the pipeline system to be more profitable, or they wouldn't be going to the expense of building it.

      I agree that "generating wealth is a good thing for a society," but how that wealth is generated and to whose detriment also needs to be considered. Generating wealth for the primary benefit of a few and the great detriment of many is not a good thing. And the "trickle down theory" has surely been adequately debunked by now.

      But a bigger problem is that "they" not only own the trains but, to a significant degree, also own the U.S. Congress and, thanks to the Supreme Court, the election process. I agree with Justice Stevens' view that Citizens United "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation."

      While it is problematic to speak of any "them" as the cause of whatever problems are being addressed, it seems to me that speaking out against plutocracy is certainly not gratuitous.

    2. My point is that there isn't a monolithic "they." There isn't a Mr. Trans who owns all of TransCanada. "They" are us, as shareholding is common among your readers, I’m quite sure. And moneyed interests both win and lose on every governmental decision affecting business like this.

      Certainly "we" want to have all the petroleum products we "need," in sufficient quantities at all times. Nothing wrong with that -- remember the awful lines to buy gasoline in the 1970s when oil was in short supply. Money is going to be made supplying those needs to make sure we get the supply we want.

      The question about the Keystone pipeline is whether it is a reasonable way to proceed to supply that demand or is so much worse than other alternatives that the government should prohibit it. “They” are going to make a lot of money either way, so I don’t see any relevance of many wealthy people supporting Keystone on the issue of whether it should be blocked or not by the government.

    3. Keith, certainly there is no monolithic "they." But it is my guess that the multiple individuals, including the Koch brothers mentioned above, who will profit the most if the XL is completed are those who are a part of the famous/infamous 1%. When I wrote about "the wealthy," it was the people in the 1% I was referring to.

      It is also most likely that those who have stock shares in the oil industry will also profit, and probably I have mutual funds with some investment in the oil industry. But I also assume that the percentage of Americans with such stocks are far below 50%--and I want to be concerned with those who are at the bottom of the economic spectrum as well as those who are as well off--and far better well off--as I.

      It is also quite certain that no one wants the oil shortage of the 1970s. But the level of domestic production of oil and gas is significantly higher now, and it is quite unlikely that the XL pipeline is necessary for avoiding such a situation in the future.

      My main point, though, is about the long-term effects on the environment. If the focus is on just the next few years, which seems to be the case of most of the supporters, then building the pipeline is possibly a good thing. But if the focus is on the next 20-50 years (and beyond), then it is probably not a good thing.

      Since I want to focus on the latter, although I probably will not still be here 20 years from now, I support the government blocking Keystone for the sake of my grandchildren and the world they will live in.

  8. Here is the link to "Keystone XL: All Lobbied Up With No Place To Go," another article in Forbes, posted earlier this morning:

  9. Few issues have left me more uncomfortable than this pipeline. For one thing, I do not know nearly enough to have a strong opinion on the various issues involved, such as rail vs. pipeline. Second, this feels a little like rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic. Our problem is based on the use of huge amounts of gasoline even more than on the production of it. Just like with drugs, our problem is our drug culture, not drug smugglers. I suspect stopping a pipeline would be like stopping one smuggling route. If it were possible, I would rather negotiate the best possible safety design and responsibility system for the pipeline, rather than simply fighting what is likely to be a losing effort anyway to stop it.

    We need a carbon tax, we need a redesigned transportation system, we even need redesigned cities. We need really big ideas to stop something as big as global warming. We need to face up to the fact that it may even already be too late to stop serious long term sea level rise, as news out of Antarctica suggests. Win or lose this battle, we may be fighting the wrong war.

  10. I just now received the June issue of Sojourners magazine. It has an article, "The Fateful Year Ahead," by Bill McKibben, whom I mentioned at the end of the blog article above. Only the first paragraph is free for reading, at

  11. And then a little further on in the same issue of Sojourners, there is an article specifically about the Keystone XL Pipeline by Calvin B. DeWitt, a noted environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

    DeWitt cites Secretary of State John Kerry: "Big companies . . . spend a lot of money to keep you and me and everybody from dong what we know we need to do."