Opinion

The Keystone XL pipeline is a political distraction

Posted March 29

The Keystone XL pipeline is less important than politicians say.

Few issues have become more politicized than the Keystone XL pipeline project. When things become politicized, facts tend to be discounted, and the facts show that the pipeline project is simply not as important as either side has maintained.

The United States does face difficult questions about the economy, energy independence, environment, air quality and the need to transition to cleaner fuel sources. Those issues have little to do with the pipeline, however, and will only be solved through innovation, cooperation and negotiation.

Indeed, the pipeline is little more than a sideshow to that process.

President Trump last week gave final approval to the Keystone XL project after the State Department issued a permit to the company behind it, TransCanada Corp. According to a Wall Street Journal report, he then seemed genuinely surprised when the CEO of that company said, at a media event announcing the permit, that some government hurdles still remain.

In fact, this issue can’t be resolved by White House decree. Few can.

Nebraska is where the pipeline, originating in Canada, will connect with an already existing network of pipes that would take crude to the Gulf Coast, and the state has yet to give its approval.

Beyond that, the company still has to obtain permissions from private landowners, and protesters are not expected to give up easily, with possible legal challenges in the works, as well.

In the meantime, Canadian oil, loaded on tankers and rail cars that are far more vulnerable to accidents and spills than a pipeline, still is making its way to U.S. ports.

Environmentalists have made this seem like the global warming equivalent of Custer’s last stand. Their narrative suggests the pipeline would encourage greater use of fossil fuels and put a long swath of land in the upper Midwest at risk of environmental catastrophe.

In truth, it would have little effect on the demand for oil, nor would it hasten a market shift to alternative fuels. It may have a slight downward pressure on price because the pipeline would provide a cheaper and more secure mode of shipping.

As for environmental dangers, history suggests that a relatively small amount of oil will leak over a 10-year period, and many existing pipelines are currently in full use.

On the other side of the issue, the pipeline will not generate many long-lasting jobs, contrary to what proponents claim. Most of the jobs associated with Keystone will be related to its construction. Long term, it is expected to create fewer than 100 full-time positions.

The cold facts about this project may explain why former President Barack Obama wavered so long before deciding to oppose it on the flimsy grounds that it would not reduce the cost of gas at the pump nor boost energy security.

He just as easily could have said it wouldn’t have much effect on the environment, either.

It is, instead, a mere political metaphor. If it moves forward, commentators will see it as the right gaining ground on environmental issues. If it is halted, the opposite perception will hold. Resolution one way or the other is a positive thing, however, and Trump is right to try to move it forward so the country can move on to solving the real energy issues facing the nation.

Hal Boyd is a student at Yale Law School and co-editor of the forthcoming, Psalms of Nauvoo: Early Mormon Poetry.

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