The long, bitter debate over building the Keystone XL pipeline has been dominated by competing claims about its ability to generate jobs and accelerate climate change.
But the 100-car trains carrying volatile crude oil that chug through Minnesota each day, including the metro area, are a reminder that public safety is also at stake as Congress and President Obama are expected to finally decide the controversial pipeline’s fate early this year.
While pipelines are not without risk, they are widely considered the least risky option among the methods current used — trains, trucks and tankers — to move large volumes of crude. Because building Keystone would funnel more crude from Western Canada and North Dakota into pipelines and help reduce the amount traveling in Minnesota and elsewhere by train and other modes, Keystone XL should be approved.
Controversy has enveloped the pipeline since the first application was submitted in September 2008. The approval process has been more complicated than other pipeline projects because it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border, running from Morgan, Mont., to Steele City, Neb., where existing pipelines await to take crude to Gulf Coast refineries. Plans for the project also call for a spur line to be built to carry North Dakota’s Bakken crude.
Climate-change advocates, who are opposed to the greenhouse-gas intensive extraction of crude from Canada’s oil sands, have wielded their considerable political clout. Their argument: High-cost development of the so-called “tar sands” will stop if the pipeline, which is a low-cost way to carry crude, is never built.
Serious questions were also raised about the proposed pipeline’s route over Great Plains aquifers, particularly plans to run it through Nebraska’s porous Sand Hills region.
These concerns have delayed the project for nearly seven years and have been given a thorough airing. The route for the pipeline was changed to avoid the Sand Hills. In addition, extensive analysis by the federal government indicated that development of the Canadian oil sands would likely continue if the pipeline were not built.
Instead, the crude would just be shipped another way, with other modes of transportation also contributing to greenhouse gases and adding risk to the product’s transport.
The recent crash of crude oil prices has spurred climate-change advocates to redouble their efforts against the pipeline and has raised fair questions about the need for it. We believe, however, that the case for regulatory approval is sound, and that the private sector, not the federal government, should make the ultimate decision on the project’s economic necessity.
Few believe that oil prices will stay low long-term. The giant companies behind oil-sands development and the pipeline have the resources to withstand the current crash in prices and are preparing for decades of development of these new oil resources.
Evidence that they aren’t going to pull up their billion-dollar stakes and bail came in a Wall Street Journal article (Jan. 12) headlined “Oil-Sands Operators, Seeing Long-Term Value, Aren’t Likely to Shut Off the Tap Any Time Soon.’’
The Keystone is part of the infrastructure needed to safely transport crude from Canada and the Bakken now and into the future.
About 10 to 12 percent of the Bakken’s current output could be carried by the new spur line. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, that would result in a commensurate drop in train traffic from the region. That’s a solid step forward on protecting Minnesota communities from oil train accidents like the one that killed 47 people in Quebec in 2013, though clearly more work must be done.
The Keystone debate has diverted the nation from discussing the real measures needed to combat climate change, chief among them a revenue-neutral carbon tax like that pushed by former Republican congressman Bob Inglis, a widely respected climate-change policy expert.
No mention of this innovative climate-change policy measure, one that has support from both conservatives and liberals, came in the president’s State of the Union speech this week.
Obama has threatened to veto the Keystone pipeline. If he’s truly serious about combating climate change, he should instead use his bully pulpit to push for a carbon tax and other initiatives that truly will make a difference.