Keystone XL risks environmental disaster, long-term job security

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The Keystone Pipeline, a massive pipeline system that carries crude oil across the United States and Canada, recently took the center stage in the national conversation about energy. Two of four proposed phases have been constructed already. The building of the third phase began in January, and President Barack Obama has yet to decide the fate of the fourth phase. Environmental groups, individual protesters and even well-known tech companies like Google and Apple outspokenly opposed the approval of the fourth phase of the project, known as Keystone XL. If this enormous outpouring of concern is not clear indication enough, the U.S. government must wake up and smell the burning oil.

The third phase of the Keystone Pipeline will add to an existing pipeline that runs from Hardisty, Alberta to Cushing, Okla., potentially extending to the Gulf Coast. The proposed fourth phase of the pipeline would essentially replace the existing pipeline between Hardisty and Steele City, Neb. Opposition from all corners arose in recent weeks, ranging from concern over ownership of property that the pipeline will pass through to concerns about the long-term cost of the two new phases.

Proponents of expanding the project continually invoke the job creation argument, stating that building such an enormous pipeline would require the creation of thousands of jobs. As numerous opponents have asserted, however, the potential short-term benefit of creating jobs does not counteract numerous potential long-term economic and ecological problems. The spike in employment would only be ephemeral since the people employed by the pipeline’s extension would again be out of work after the third and fourth phases of the project were completed. It makes little sense to support a project that provides such transitory employment when the U.S. needs better job security, not simply more temporary jobs.

The political careers of both Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama have been marked by a commitment to the environment, yet neither has firmly stood in opposition to the expansion of this project. On the heels of his promising Climate Action Plan, Obama approved breaking ground on the third phase, despite the outpouring of protests from environmental groups. Although advocates for Keystone XL claim that it will provide “long-term energy independence” for the U.S., in reality the pipeline will only serve to exacerbate American dependence on foreign oil, since the Keystone Pipeline is owned by Canadian company TransCanada.

TransCanada alleges that Keystone XL will “give an economic boost to Americans,” but they seem keen on maintaining shortsightedness when it comes to evaluating the real impacts of Keystone XL. While the project would temporarily increase employment in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota, it would simultaneously displace many low-income families and indigenous communities in Canada from the land that contains pipeline. Not to mention that while oil companies hail the positive effects of expanding infrastructure for the industry, hundreds of their workers are continually laid off. According to “Think Progress,” the biggest suppliers of gasoline in the U.S. Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Shell and British Petroleum collectively eliminated 11,200 employees between 2005 and 2010, and minimum-wage workers comprise nearly half of the whole industry.

But the audacity of pro-Keystone XL advocates does not stop at putting rose-tinted glasses (or more accurately, blacked-out lenses) over the economic costs of the pipeline. Advocates even try to refute the probable environmental damage the project will cause. Environmental activists have pointed to the likelihood that this pipeline will create spills and more carbon pollution.

The pipeline’s starting point would be in Canada’s tar sands, an issue which has incited the most backlash. The process of making oil from tar sands usable is itself fossil fuel-intensive and in some sense is more trouble than it is worth. It creates more noxious emissions and byproducts than the typical refining process. For the U.S. to support this practice and to consume oil produced through this process would fly in the face of Obama’s alleged commitment to finding practical, long-term solutions to the ecological crisis.

At the heart of the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline is a surprisingly tenacious denial of the severity of the environmental disaster facing us. Underlying that denial, of course, is the unchecked capitalist enterprising of oil companies and certain politicians, even if it means the demise of the next generation. A report recently put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examined the negative effects of climate change we are already experiencing, including significantly compromised food and water security. If Obama approves of the Keystone XL pipeline, he is essentially communicating – to the American people and the global community at large – a flippant lack of commitment to a cornerstone of his political platform: moving toward long-term energy solutions.

To say that the U.S. needs to wean itself off of fossil fuels is a lot like beating a dead horse. Yet here we are, in a lurch, waiting for Obama to stand by his Climate Action Plan and oppose the start of Keystone XL or to approve a monumentally destructive and short-sighted project. Petitions and other means of opposing the pipeline abound. Americans should not let capitalist interests trump in the face of severe economic and ecological consequences. We are going to increasingly insane lengths to support our reliance on finite fossil fuels and not enough is being done to more creatively and effectively grapple with the ecological mess we have made for ourselves.

Cordelia Kenney is a senior history major. She can be reached at ckenney@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyCKenney.