As the Senate grapples with a legislative takeover of the Obama administration's authority to approve or deny the Keystone XL pipeline, the debate over fossil fuels is shifting in important ways.
Over the past decade, the oil and gas industry claimed that more drilling would lead to energy independence, uncoupling us from volatile Middle Eastern nations. Of course, during most of this period, America's drilling effort focused on natural gas, not crude oil. Natural gas has always come from North America; we have never imported much from overseas. Under the Bush administration, an environmentally catastrophic welter of drilling overwhelmed the American West, and later in the Appalachians as the fracking boom opened up the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to gas production. None of this drilling activity led us one step closer to energy independence, because natural gas has not replaced oil-based gasoline to fuel cars, trucks or commercial airliners.
Then came fracking for shale oil. As North Dakota was transformed into an industrial sacrifice zone, domestic oil production skyrocketed, glutting the global market and spurring calls from industry to lift restrictions on exporting American oil and natural gas. At the same time, Canada sought permission to construct a massive pipeline to move its tar sands oil from the strip mines of the boreal north to refineries and export terminals near Houston. Once again, energy security was trumpeted as a benefit of the project, but the real goal was always to take Canadian oil to higher-price overseas markets, fattening profit margins.
Tar sands oil is heavy and dirty, filled with pollutants and boasting some of the world's highest outputs of carbon per unit of energy produced. It starts with the strip-mining of boreal forest ecosystems on an almost-unimaginable scale, a scalping of the planet creating scars that will take centuries to heal, if ever. It contributes to extremes of climate that feed droughts, violent storms and changes in sea level that affect the United States. Hurricanes used to be a Southern phenomenon, but Hurricane Sandy proved that tropical storms can now cause billions in damage to New York City and massive flooding in Vermont. These are the downsides.
What does America get out of enabling the destruction of the Canadian north in a quest for fossil fuels?
There are two years' worth of temporary pipeline construction jobs, which are guaranteed to trickle away to almost nothing after the pipeline is built. A Denny's in Nebraska will have more permanent employees.
Then there is the risk of pollution of the Ogallala aquifer from almost-certain spills of crude. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, coupled with Prudhoe Bay oil fields, records an average of 504 oil spills every year. These are easier to spot, since the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is aboveground; Keystone XL's spills will be hidden underground, slowing detection times and increasing the likelihood of truly massive leaks. The Ogallala is the nation's largest and most important source of groundwater, supplying almost one-third of the nation's groundwater for irrigation. It is the irreplaceable backbone of a farming industry that contributes billions to the national economy. Once the aquifer is fouled by hydrocarbons, there is no way to clean it up.
In return, we get faster Canadian production of a very dirty fossil fuel. The Keystone XL pipeline will accelerate the transportation of tar sands oil to global markets and lower transportation costs for oil companies. Transporting tar sands oil by railroad is expensive and can only accommodate a limited amount of oil. Keystone XL is such a big deal because it opens the floodgates for this product, making it faster and cheaper to sell. Lower transportation costs will translate directly into more tar sands production, since mining and refining this gummy substance will remain profitable even when global oil prices plummet, times when the tar sands industry would otherwise grind to a halt.
Some have tried to wrap up the Keystone XL pipeline project in the patriotic garb of energy independence and American jobs. But the United States is already the world's largest oil producer, and is now ramping up gasoline exports to other countries. And while several thousand temporary construction jobs may be created by the project, this is a drop in the national employment bucket and will shrink to an estimated 50 permanent jobs once construction halts. Under what kind of twisted math can this short-term jobs benefit outweigh the economic loss from permanently polluting an even more valuable and essential resource, our groundwater?
The real motive for this project has nothing to do with America's best interest: It's to get Canadian crude to foreign markets faster, cheaper and in massive quantities, generating huge profits for the oil corporations busily strip-mining Canadian forests and wetlands. In short, it's about naked greed.
By law, the State Department has the responsibility of determining whether hosting this Canadian pipeline on American soil is in our national interest. Some in Congress are pushing legislation to lift this pipeline above the law and force approval, while the Obama administration promises a veto. The outcome will be decided by lawmakers in Congress, weighing the profits of Canadian oil giants against protecting American interests in clean water and a healthy environment. We'll see which country's interests win out in the end.
Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.