Tim Johnson’s last chance

In the twilight of his Senate service, South Dakota’s Sen. Tim Johnson (D) has an opportunity to continue his support for a strong United States energy policy by supporting legislation that will permit the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. As a legislator, Johnson has long been a strong advocate for sensible U.S. energy.  He supports both renewable and traditional energy sources such as oil and natural gas. On his website Johnson notes, “I support expanding oil and gas production in areas with proven oil reserves and the pipeline and refining infrastructure necessary to bring additional supplies to market quickly and efficiently.”

A pretty definitive statement. 

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Johnson has never given full throated support to Keystone XL Pipeline. The Senator should be credited with voting, just a few days before he announced he was retiring in March ‘13, for a budget amendment which symbolically supports the pipeline. He has on a number of occasions made statements backing the process which reviews the necessary permit, but he has never given a definitive thumbs up or down.

Until now.

The U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee is set to take up legislation today which would approve construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The politics of the situation are such that the next senator elected from South Dakota is likely to support construction. 

There is an old saying in politics, “be for what is going to happen.” 

A quick tally based on predictions being made about the next session of Congress by political forecasters like Charlie Cook and the math in the Senate starts to stack in Keystone’s favor.  

The 2.5 million miles of energy pipelines in the United States are by far the safest and most efficient mode to deliver energy from its source to its destination.  South Dakota knows this because the original Keystone pipeline traverses north to south through the eastern section of the state.  

There are plenty of other reasons for the Senator to support Keystone XL.  The jobs it will create.  The economic activity it will generate.  Completion of the most environmentally advanced pipeline ever constructed.  And, not often mentioned the energy stability it will create for the United States.

Escalating sectarian violence in Iraq is driving up the market price for a barrel of oil. Prices will continue to rise as long as there is uncertainty around the security of Baghdad.  Stakes are high.  Rising costs in crude oil quickly translate over to increased costs in a gallon of gasoline. 

Politicians often claim energy policy is a national security issue; Iraq is the real world example. Iraq is a member of OPEC and is the world’s 8th largest producer of crude oil. Instability inside Iraq, especially Baghdad, will ricochet through financial markets affecting not only oil prices but also the health of the global economy.

South Dakota is 6,600 miles away from Iraq. It would take a 20-hour flight, if one could fly direct from Sioux Falls to Baghdad. Despite the distance, South Dakota will see the ripple effects of higher energy prices. Energy costs already weigh heavily on both household and business budgets.  Increase the cost of diesel to a trucking company or home heating costs to any household and you understand why politicians talk about energy policy as a national security issue.

There is a better option.  Canada is America’s closest trading partner and one of its closest allies. The two countries share the longest unguarded border in the world, yet Canada has been trying for nearly five years to cross the 49th parallel between Alberta and Montana and build an oil pipeline that would deliver lower priced Canadian oil to Gulf Coast refineries. Canada is already safely exporting 1.14 billion barrels of oil a year to the U.S. and Canada is expanding its infrastructure to export to countries outside the U.S. as well.  

Increasing North American supplies of crude oil will shield the U.S. economy from disruptions caused by Middle East violence.  The Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposed fourth leg of the Keystone Pipeline system, would transport 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands and the Bakken shale in North Dakota to Gulf Coast refineries where it would be turned into gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel to be sold in the United States.  

Critics, ranging from Hollywood celebrities to foreign leaders, are making claims that the pipeline would only exacerbate the release of carbon into the atmosphere. However, the Obama Administration has concluded that other means of transporting oil to the Gulf Coast refinery complex will actually emit more carbon. Further, the amount of carbon that we are talking about here is nowhere near “significant” (to use President Obama’s litmus test language). Using EPA data, a Washington Post reporter recently put the carbon issue into a context everyone can understand:

“So, 18.7 million tons sounds like a huge number on its own, but consider that more than 10 times that much CO2-e gets released into the atmosphere each year from methane produced by cows. We could say that in terms of overall CO2-e emissions, Keystone amounts to a little over one tenth of U.S. cow flatulence.”

The House has passed multiple bills that would allow the project to move forward, now it is Senator Johnson’s opportunity to move Keystone XL one step closer to construction.

Whatley is policy adviser at the Consumer Energy Alliance, a supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline.  He has worked on Capitol Hill as a chief of staff and a subcommittee staff director as well as working at the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

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