Why Does the Keystone XL Decision Have To Be Yes or No?

This sounds like an absurd title, but what it means is that we are capable of negotiating that the pipeline only goes forward and is used if conditions are met that allay our worst fears and prevent environmental damage.  The pipeline has to be approved by the administration and the state department.  The state department contains or has access to our best and brightest negotiators on international matters and international law.  The administration is always willing to negotiate positive compromises.  A few environmental law groups, such as the National Resources Defense Council, are also experts in finding solutions that are acceptable to both sides.

Among the things that bother many environmentalists and myself is the possibility of oil spills.  While BP put forth immediately $20 billion to ameliorate damages in the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, it was not required to do so before, or after.  A large contingency fund should be required of the builders of the Keystone XL, in the billions of dollars, to cover possible oil spills’ cleanups and damage liability, to be replenished as it is depleted. We can also require that the pipeline be built with a large number of pressure monitors for spills, and cameras in locations that are at highest risk, and have a large number of shutoff points, so that spills will only dump a short segment of pipe.

Another thing the pipeline constitutes is a permanent line on the map across the entire North-South extent of the US, that must be passed over by any new road, power grid, pipeline, railroad or other things built across it.  Again, a multi-billion dollar contingency fund should be required to pay for all costs of the bypasses needed.

Commentators have been unclear whether the oil in the pipeline will be refined in the US, or used in the US or used in a foreign country, under long range contracts.  Those arguing that it is a resource for North American energy independence should insist that when circumstances may arise that would require its use in the US, that it be made available for that, in preference to any other existing contracts.

All of us are disturbed at the large and unsightly environmental damage done at the shale strip mining sites, and the apparent or possible damage done to Alberta from fracking for the shale.  The pipeline agreement should require rapid and continual environmental cleanup and replacement of forests or prairies, or the output of the pipeline would be reduced until such damage was repaired.

The Obama administration has stated that its approval is based on whether the extraction and bituminous oil would pollute the environment more than oil from other sources.  Since the answer is yes, a real question should be by how much, and how much is acceptable.  The estimates for CO2 pollution top out at an extra 17%.  Considering the trillions of dollars that the US has spent in the Iraq conflict and thousands of lives lost, the security of having more North American produced oil should have been the main concern.  Considering that, I don’t find the extra 17% to be excessive.  Since in the future the shale may not be simply available by strip mining, and since cleaner technology is often only a matter of cost, the agreement allowing the Keystone XL could set a maximum of 17% excessive CO2.  If somewhat more pollution is unavoidable, fines could be levied that would be applied to other energy efficiency measures, ecosystem replacement, or pollution free electricity sources such as wind and solar, to make up the difference.

Here are some numbers to put the pipeline’s effect into perspective.  The capacity of the pipeline is 850,000 barrels per day.  US oil consumption is about 18 million barrels per day.  So the pipeline would carry about 5% of US oil consumption, or about 1% of world oil consumption.  At 17% excess CO2 from tar sands oil, that would increase CO2 from US oil consumption by 1%, and world CO2 from oil by 0.2%.  The Canadian tar sands are already producing 1.8 million barrels per day, being shipped by other pipelines and tanker cars on rail.  New rail terminal oil capacity from Canada is expected to increase by 700,000 barrels per day by 2015.

One sees that most of the problems can be prevented or ameliorated by conditions and negotiations with the State Department or the administration, and those should be pursued.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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