The Keystone XL pipeline is a political lightning rod, a symbol around which have gathered stark opposing views. It’s jobs versus environmental degradation. It’s energy independence versus climate-change alarms. It’s cool, clear water versus Koch.
Of course, each side can seem right in a narrow sort of way, depending at any given moment how it marshals the arguments. But what really should we do about it? And where will this ongoing, difficult environmental debate, among all the others being fought right now, eventually lead?
To many people — those not paying close attention — Keystone XL must seem like a gargantuan project, looming over a vast uncertain turf. In reality, the most contentious unbuilt portions of the pipeline would stretch a mere 875 miles across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska and would be only one link in a web of pipes already commissioned or in the works throughout the middle section of the country. Its status has been heightened and politicized because of its international border-crossing, which requires an executive-branch ruling on national security. Most domestic pipeline projects under way in these parts get relatively easy state approval, given the power that fossil-fuel interests hold over utility commissions and politicians.
In some quarters the Keystone XL represents only a small part of a “national energy sacrifice zone” that now dominates the Great Plains.
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That’s according to Robin Martinez, a Kansas City attorney who has acquired a big-picture perspective on the project while representing an effort to block the pipeline in South Dakota.
Martinez, at a local Sierra Club meeting the other night, showed stark visual evidence of the quest for Canadian oil: Pristine boreal forests of northern Alberta have been scraped and plundered in strip-mining operations that squeeze heavy bitumen out of sandy, clayey soil and leave toxic tailing ponds behind. The dense bitumen is diluted for transport with benzene, toluene and other chemicals. Opponents fear the very real toxic risk of a rupture or pipeline corrosion — think only of the most recent pipeline disaster, off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. Supporters, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, the pragmatic Democrat from Missouri, argue that the pipeline would be less dangerous than those railroad tankers that have exploded with troubling frequency.
Martinez represents Dakota Rural Action, a grassroots organization, in a pro bono role. The pipeline developer, the TransCanada Corp., was forced to make a second attempt to gain approval in South Dakota from a friendly Public Utility Commission. The company’s lawyers have successfully limited testimony by Sioux Indian tribes in the state who also are fighting the permit, opposing the pipeline on grounds related to land and water rights. Another hearing is scheduled at the end of July.
“Frankly,” Martinez said, “we’re not terribly optimistic, based on the commission’s attitude.” But even in possible defeat, he said, a significant victory would involve putting voluminous documents and testimony on the public record.
When explaining her support for Keystone XL early this year, McCaskill — disappointing her environmentally sensitive constituents — argued on behalf of the pipeline’s contributions to the nation’s energy security.
“(W)e can’t be needlessly taking energy sources off the table,” McCaskill wrote. “That’s why I’ve also supported the design and production of cheaper, safer nuclear power, a greater role for renewables and energy storage, and increased oil and gas production on federal lands.”
McCaskill never mentioned the tragic, environmental cost of exploiting Canada’s tar sands in the first place. To Martinez, the Keystone XL pipeline represents just another enabling partner in our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels.
Yes, the oil is flowing anyway. But let’s not make it even easier for the industry to exploit this resource and to hasten the march to climate catastrophe. It would be a powerful statement to reject the Keystone XL pipeline on that basis alone.