The debate over the future of the Keystone XL pipeline has dominated discussions about energy over the last few years in Washington.
Despite all the attention, however, the project remains stuck in the legislative process. The U.S. Senate this week could not muster enough votes to approve and send it to President Barack Obama, where it likely would be vetoed.
But even as supporters’ tantalizing promises of using the pipeline to create more jobs in America collide with detractors’ claims that it would be an environmental nightmare, an unexpected reality has emerged.
America’s oil industry is thriving again.
Remember the bad old days, when the United States was said to be a pawn in the game played by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Americans were just a civil war in a Middle Eastern country away from $5 a gallon gasoline?
The facts are different today.
▪ U.S. oil prices recently fell below $75 a barrel. That’s the lowest price in four years, adjusted for inflation, and well under the $90 and $100-plus costs during most of that span.
▪ U.S. petroleum production topped 9 million barrels a day for a full week this month. For the year, the country is pumping more than 8 million barrels a day. That would be the highest level of domestic production in almost 30 years. And federal government predictions for 2015 show the daily output could exceed any other year since 1972.
▪ Gasoline prices are below $3 a gallon nationally, and closer to $2.60 in the Kansas City area, at their lowest in five years when adjusted for inflation.
The sudden emergence of the United States as the third largest producer of petroleum in the world, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia, has surprised even longtime experts in the industry.
In the United States, much of the increased production has come from using the environmentally controversial act of hydraulic fracturing — using highly pressurized water — to force natural gas and crude oil out of deeply buried shale. North Dakota’s economy in particular has boomed because of it.
The unforeseen turnaround in the petroleum industry has not stopped Keystone supporters, though. They correctly note that this nation still imports much of its oil, and that extracting oil from Canada’s tar sands and moving it into the United States would boost refinery supplies.
However, the supposed job creation figures thrown around by Keystone’s backers are all over the place, from several thousand to hundreds of thousands. Opponents contend the numbers would be much, much lower.
Meanwhile, the costs of building the pipeline could show up on the environmental ledger as well. Critics such as Friends of the Earth say extracting the tar sands oil creates far more harmful carbon dioxide emissions than regular drilling, increases water pollution and destroys forests.
As usual, the costs of dealing with environmental problems caused by tar sands oil are not included in the equation that supporters are using to try to pass the Keystone XL pipeline.
Still, the project eventually could move ahead in Washington, despite this week’s defeat. With a larger number of Republicans in 2015, the Senate might have the votes needed to send a revived bill to Obama’s desk. If he vetoes the pipeline, that might stop it once again — unless GOP leaders can muster enough allies to get to a two-thirds vote needed to override the president.
When that debate occurs, pipeline opponents will be able to point to the already much higher petroleum production in this country and wonder if the environmental risks inherent with the pipeline are truly worth taking.