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What's the Big Deal About the Keystone xl Pipeline?

Updated on February 26, 2015

Just More Politics as Usual

Although I do not find the topic particularly interesting, I have found myself unable to avoid stories about the Keystone xl pipeline. And the more that I hear about it, the less I understand what all of the fuss is about. As we often see in American politics these days, this pipeline matters mostly as a symbol, generating another opportunity for citizens to argue and for politicians to engage in political theater.

When discussing the evils of this pipeline, liberal Democrats focus on a couple of issues. First, they point out the potential for oil spills over a wide area that could result from the pipeline leaking, bursting, or even being attacked by terrorists. Many also point out that the oil carried through this pipeline will come from the Canadian tar sands, encouraging a form of oil drilling that is even dirtier and more destructive than conventional methods and that benefits Canadians more than Americans. Rather than perpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels, giving one more handout to oil corporations, and building projects that do little to help our economy, we should be shifting toward renewable resources and rebuilding our truly vital (and often crumbling) infrastructure.

While sympathetic toward the goal of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels, I have trouble seeing how this one project is going to make a hell of a lot of difference. We already have, after all, thousands of miles of oil pipelines scattered throughout the country. And if the primary concern is the safety of moving oil through pipelines, one could make a strong case that the other alternatives for moving the oil – railroads or barges – are even more potentially dangerous. One way or the other, that oil from Canada is going to be moved, and there aren’t any perfect options. And if we make it harder for Canada to get its oil to market, this will, according to many conservative advocates, only help oil-rich countries that are often in unstable regions and are ruled by unfriendly governments.

In addition to making the arguments above, conservative Republicans like to talk about this pipeline as an economic stimulus project that will create thousands of jobs. But while the project will create some short-term construction jobs, honest assessments estimate that it will only lead to a few dozen permanent positions. It will also do little to reduce global dependence on oil from countries that we do not like. Oil is bought and sold on a global exchange, with Canadian, American, Saudi Arabian, Venezuelan, Russian, and Iranian oil all going into essentially the same pile. So long as fossil fuels drive the global economy, oil-rich countries are going to maintain political and economic clout, with oil prices subject to shocks triggered by various crises. This concept of gaining some kind of oil independence is therefore a fantasy.

So why do Republicans keep talking about this particular pipeline as some sort of an economic salvation? I suspect that it is because they lack any other original ideas for stimulating economic growth. For decades, they have been riding the Reagan economic program, arguing that tax cuts and deregulation will lead to business prosperity, with much of this wealth eventually trickling down to the average American. Needless to say, for many Americans, this argument is not very convincing. So, if nothing else, a pipeline is something tangible, and if the pipeline does not get built under President Obama’s watch – as many Republicans figure it won’t – then it feeds their narrative of the President as a typical liberal environmentalist who is holding back economic growth.

The President, of course, is well aware of the fact that Republicans are using this pipeline controversy to blast him for his economic record. He also realizes, however, that he needs to do something every now and then to appease the devoted environmentalists in his party. And perhaps more importantly, he needs to keep happy the less hard-core environmentalist Democrats who want to drive their SUVs, charge their smart phones, and pat themselves on their backs for supporting a party that at least does more to protect the environment than those damn Republicans.

The simple fact is that it is very difficult to strike a balance between our desires for economic growth and for a clean and healthy environment. It would be nice, therefore, if our leaders and citizens would have some adult conversations about practical ways to strike this balance more effectively. Unfortunately, we tend to waste a lot of time and energy on symbolic debates about things like the Keystone pipeline, a project that will probably have little measurable impact on either the economy or the environment.


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