Suggested headline: A reluctant endorsement for the Keystone Pipeline

For four or five months I have been trying to make sense of the Keystone Pipeline controversy. The proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline would transport oil from Hardesty, Alberta, to Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The pipeline would not cross the state of North Dakota, but it would benefit North Dakota by providing an efficient and safe method of transporting oil from the Bakken oil field to distant refineries.

North Dakota currently ranks fourth in U.S. oil production (after Texas, Alaska, and California), and is likely to rank third or even second before long. We are producing more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day. Virtually all of that oil has to go somewhere else to be refined. Getting it out of North Dakota is a serious logistical problem. The Keystone Pipeline would approach the border of North Dakota at Baker, Mont., just over from Marmarth. An access facility at Baker would serve as an on ramp for Bakken oil.

The vast quantities of oil being extracted from beneath the prairie of western North Dakota can find their way to refineries by one of three transportation systems: railroads, highway trucks, or pipelines. No system is entirely immune to industrial accidents (oil spills), but a well-built underground pipeline is without question the safest and most reliable method of transporting oil, and the one that puts the least pressure on the social structure of North Dakota, as well as its existing infrastructure.

The national (and indeed international) controversy about the Keystone Pipeline has little to do with North Dakota. A list of environmental and landowner organizations too impressive to be ignored opposes the Keystone project, as well as somewhere between 50 and 100 members of Congress. The Obama administration has serious doubts about the wisdom of the pipeline and is attempting to slow down the process. The president's decision (last Wednesday) to reject the current pipeline proposal is not the end of the story. Obama made it clear that TransCanada is welcome to return with a revised proposal that, among other things, will be re-routed to protect the sandhills of western Nebraska. If the president is re-elected in 2012, I believe he will reluctantly approve the pipeline - while expressing his serious misgivings at the same time.

The arguments of pipeline opponents move from the specific to the general. The pipeline may threaten wetlands and wildlife habitats along its path. It will transect 70 rivers and streams, including the Yellowstone, the Missouri, the Platte, and the Arkansas. It will cross (or now perhaps skirt) the fabulous and fragile sand hills of Nebraska, and it will cross the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast underground lake underlying eight Great Plains States. The Ogallala supplies 30% of the nation's irrigation water and provides domestic water to more than two million people. A serious oil spill could be catastrophic.

Those are just the siting and spill issues.

Landowners in Nebraska have also complained about the high-handedness of TransCanada, which has allegedly threatened to use eminent domain to secure the pipeline's path if farmers and ranchers do not cooperate in leasing the right of way.

The larger issue has to do with our future relationship to carbon. Pipeline opponents, led by environmental essayist and activist William McKibben, argue that building the Keystone Pipeline endorses and indeed deepens our addiction to the carbon economy at a time when the United States should be doing everything in our power to develop a new energy paradigm that is not so harmful to the health of the Earth. If we are serious about addressing the problem of global climate change, serious about reducing the carbon "footprint" of the industrial nations of the world, we should be concentrating our ingenuity into developing alternative energy sources rather than "rewarding" a particularly dirty carbon source - the Alberta tar sands.

The rap against the tar sands is that they are extremely expensive to exploit and that the oil they release is "dirty fuel," producing two or three times more carbon emissions than conventional oil, plus additional toxins. If we are serious about moving toward a lighter industrial footprint and a greener civilization, opponents say, the Keystone Pipeline is precisely the sort of "energy solution" we should reject. Pipeline opponents argue that even those who are skeptical about global climate change should reject the Keystone project simply because the tar sands are such an expensive, cost-ineffective, and toxic source of oil.

I see the merits of the arguments on both sides of the Keystone issue. I have been reading everything I can get my hands on, talking with everyone I know (ad nauseam), and wrestling with the dilemma we all find ourselves in. There is no clear path to an enlightened future.

Still, on balance I think we should hold our noses and build the thing. Here's why.

Two things are absolutely certain. First, Canada is going to continue to develop the Alberta Tar Sands whether we approve the pipeline or not, and nothing the United States can do would prevent that development. Second, Alberta's oil is going somewhere. If it doesn't pass through the Keystone Pipeline to refineries in the United States, it is going to flow toward the west coast of Canada, where it will be transported to China. In other words, we cannot "save the planet" by refusing to authorize the pipeline. We just give China a strategic advantage at the beginning of a century in which that rising nation of 1.3 billion consumers is going to be our principal international rival and antagonist. From a geopolitical perspective, that makes no sense. It may turn out to be a colossal mistake.

Furthermore, whether we like to admit it or not, we continue to be hopelessly addicted to oil (and carbon generally), and no viable green alternative is yet in sight. The United States already gets 20 percent of its oil from Canada. That number is likely to rise. In an increasingly dangerous world, where the remaining large deposits of conventional oil seem to lie under unstable or unfriendly regimes (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria), knowing that Canada has the second or third largest oil reserves in the world should be a source of deep comfort to the people of the United States, even if tar sands oil is not ideal from an environmental point of view. Canada is our best friend in the world. It may be that the Monroe Doctrine is going to become even more important in the 21st century than it was in the 19th. The international consternation over Iran's threat to close the Straits of Hormuz reminds us of just how fragile the West's oil supply continues to be.

Besides, from a purely selfish point of view, the Keystone Pipeline is a godsend to North Dakota at a time when our infrastructure is being overwhelmed by oil production.

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. He can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)

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