February 21, 2013


Ask a random selection of people on the street: “What is the Keystone (XL) Pipeline?” Most people won’t know, which is a shame, because it is a very important issue.

The Keystone Pipeline System is a 3,456 mile long system of pipelines used to transport petrochemical products from where they come out of the ground to where they are refined or distributed. To put it in perspective, the trans-Alaska pipeline system is 800 miles long. True, much of the terrain through which the new pipeline system travels will not be as hostile as the far north of Alaska, but it is almost 4½ times longer than the oil pipeline in Alaska. The original concept was proposed in 2005. Different sections of the project were completed from 2007 through 2011.

Some new sections have been added to transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen ("dilbit") from the Athabasca oil sands region in northeastern Alberta, Canada, to multiple destinations in the United States. These are the sections about which the current controversy rages: two relatively small additions (374 miles) to the existing Keystone system. One connects a “tar sands” facility near Alberta, Canada to the main pipeline and the other connects the system to a facility in Steele City, Nebraska.

Proponents of the pipeline cite mainly economic reasons for completing the latest phase of the pipeline system:

Opponents of the pipeline cite mainly environmental reasons for not completing the proposed additions to the system:

The political arguments add another dimension:

But what exactly is this all about really? Global petrochemical production is an industry and a technology that has a finite limit: there is only so much oil and natural gas, and demand is not decreasing. As additional demand does not result in additional cheap, easily exploitable resources, the industry seeks to exploit new, more difficult, and more expensive sources, to meet the global demand. Don’t forget here that we are talking about global demand, not just USA demand. This oil will not mean lower prices, or less oil imports for us. This oil will be sold to the highest bidder.

Pipelines and other responses to this extension of resource development make it possible for huge multinational corporations to profitably exploit these new sources to meet global demand. These new responses are heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars. We are in essence paying the petrochemical industry to pay their shareholders, with our tax dollars. It is certainly possible for them to underwrite these investments themselves, but this is not considered a viable option for two reasons:

Indeed, one of the most serious consequences of exploiting this technology to liberate oil from what were formerly known as low-grade deposits is that they endanger entire regional aquifers. An aquifer is the groundwater of a region. Depending on the geology of the region, this can either be a shallow aquifer or a deep one (or both). Obviously, since humans rely on aquifers for much of the water they use, something that contaminates an entire aquifer can have a major impact on the lives of millions of people.

The response of the petrochemical industry is predictable: it is the same answer they always have given to criticism and calls for caution:

  1. It won’t happen or it can’t happen.
  2. If it does happen, we have processes in place to limit damage.
  3. Any harm is insignificant compared to the potential gain.

And they really believe these things, especially the last: they stand to make billions of dollars of profit from this technology and think that they can limit their liability in the event of any conceivable catastrophe so that this liability is negligible compared to the amount of money they can make.

But the world is not all about profit. The lives, homes, and livelihoods of millions of people are not negligible. The damage to millions of lives and to the quality of life in an entire region should not be weighed against the profit of a few powerful corporations. This is especially true when we weigh the potential loss to the lives of millions of people to enable the export of oil to China. Why should they put their homes and lives on the line to send oil to China?

We all know why our federal and state legislators support this plan. We all know why the President supports this plan. It is all about short-term profits for the few, at the expense of the many. The potential for harming millions of US citizens, for many decades, is to them insignificant compared with the potential profits to be made right now. The only thing that can counter this kind of influence peddling is massive public opinion. It is up to each of us to inform our legislators and our President that we will not accept empty promises from big oil again. Contact your legislators and the President today.

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