The Keystone pipeline has been a source of controversy for more than a decade now. Angry protesters see its planned delivery of fossil fuels as one more step toward climate Armageddon. But proponents counter that the overall pipeline is simply a necessary, effective means of transporting crude oil to the refineries that produce market-ready gasoline for millions of Americans.
Not many people realize that segments of the Keystone Pipeline have been in operation for several years now, and are already delivering crude oil to refineries in both Illinois and Texas. But those routes are lengthy and indirect. More recently, the pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, has pushed for a shorter, more direct path — the Keystone XL — that would run diagonally through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Earlier this week, the Nebraska Public Service Commission (NPSC) voted to approve Nebraska’s share of that route. The 3-2 decision clears the final major regulatory hurdle needed to complete the project, though environmental groups may appeal the decision.
Overall, TransCanada has been tarred as the evil actor in a long-simmering debate over the pipeline’s necessity and utility. But in recent years, TransCanada has agreed to move the pipeline’s proposed path away from environmentally sensitive wetlands known as the Nebraska Sandhills. And this week’s NPSC decision further shifted the pipeline away from the Sandhills area.
In practical terms, Keystone XL will aid the expansion of both U.S. and Canadian oil production. This is significant since booming oil and gas extraction is now helping to lift a struggling U.S. economy. But environmental activists who oppose the pipeline miss a fundamental point when decrying oil and gas development. They argue that increased fossil fuel consumption is inherently damaging, while simultaneously overlooking the benefits it provides in terms of affordable, reliable energy.
There are two issues at hand. The first is the assumption that the use of fossil fuels through projects like the Keystone Pipeline will necessarily drive further global warming. But there’s nary an activist around who can address some fundamental concerns about presumed, man-made climate change — that carbon dioxide actually loses the ability to absorb heat as its concentration increases in the atmosphere, or that solar output increased dramatically during the past century.
Unaware of even these basic climate contradictions, however, Keystone opponents continue to protest the pipeline as a direct, tangible manifestation of man’s contribution to global warming. But this leads to a second problem, since many activists simply brush aside the benefits offered by the use of plentiful, reliable energy.
Fossil fuels remain the most efficient and affordable means of both generating electricity and powering the day-to-day needs of a healthy, First World standard of living. The cars that take us to work also transport the injured and ill to hospitals. And the electricity that powers our lights and refrigerators also pumps and treats clean municipal drinking water. But even more important is the concurrent removal and treatment of massive quantities of sewage and wastewater each day, keeping cities safe from disease and staving off the proliferation of bacterial parasites that afflict the developing world.
There’s hardly a perfect system for ensuring human survival. But reality inevitably intrudes when calculating the trade-offs necessary to keep large populations alive, healthy, and safe. The Keystone XL pipeline is indeed an industrial product. It’s a long, monolithic pipeline that will stretch hundreds of miles through rural lands. There could be leaks or spillage during its presumed, 50-year lifespan. But the pipeline’s developers aren’t hoping to despoil nature. And they’re incorporating digital technology to monitor every phase of the pipeline’s construction and use in as safe a manner as possible.
The American people need to weigh the cost of keeping America’s lights on, and of motors running each day, of delivering tons of refrigerated foods to major metropolitan areas. They need to consider the quantities of medicine consumed, the hospitals and schools heated in winter, and air-conditioned in summer. The Keystone XL is one more necessary step toward ensuring the safe, modern lifestyle to which all humans aspire. The pipeline is an imperfect, but necessary, part of this path toward a healthier, safer America.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.