Friday afternoon, and officials at the State Department are probably breathing a huge sigh of relief. The official public comment period on the northern extension of the $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline expired today. And the unofficial public comment that’s making the news is today’s release of a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that has proponents of the pipeline winning over protesters by a margin of at least two and a half to one, counting sampling error.
Perhaps the most egregious error the poll respondents have made concerns not the pipeline itself, but the issue of its economic benefits. Many politicians, especially conservatives, have referred to the decision as “a no-brainer.” Says TransCanada, which proposed the pipeline:
“[The] Keystone XL Pipeline will be the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America. It will not only bring essential infrastructure to North American oil producers, but it will also provide jobs, long-term energy independence, and an economic boost to Americans.”
Just because Keystone XL would be safer and more advanced than other pipelines would hardly give it immunity from spills, some of which might be more catastrophic than any we’ve seen before. But oil and gas are dangerous products. The alternatives—rail, barge, and ship transport—have potentially huge impacts as well.
What about jobs? Fully 85% of those polled say the pipeline would create a significant number of jobs, 62% believing that “strongly.” In January, the State Department itself downgraded the pipeline job numbers to less than 2,000 during construction and 50 permanent positions. Pehaps blinded the lateness and low profile of these numbers or misled by expensive pro-industry advertising and public relations, the public appears to have not heard or not internalized these figures.
As for “long-term energy independence,” what’s “long-term” is in the eye of the beholder. Using readily available numbers, in 2006 Canada’s Energy Department estimated that at the “rate of production projected for 2015, about 3 million barrels per day (480×103 m3/d), the Athabasca tar sands reserves would last over 170 years.” That’s for Canada. On a worldwide scale, they’re talking about less than seven and a half years per person.
“An economic boost to Americans”? Mostly to multinational oil companies and Canadians, and same old, same old for the US. Lots and lots of North American exports, supporting the economies of other gas-guzzling nations.
The most important part of TransCanada’s selling story is the part it leaves out. That’s climate change, which is breathing down our necks, in case you hadn’t noticed.
It’s not “game over” for the most hotly contended energy vs. environment clash in the United States by any means, but the burden of the argument has now shifted from citizens. It will go through bureaucracy and ultimately reach those at the top, who will decide whether to bear or bury the pipeline. Symbolically, the matter is now out of the people’s hands, despite the emotional residue.
In the bigger picture, environmental advocates seem to have a lot more to worry about than the Keystone XL pipeline. Just a few items: energy pursuit rapidly depleting a finite fresh water supply, deforestation, nuclear debate heightened by Japan’s post-Fukushima miseries, bickering over renewable energy, the crushing need of India and China for coal until they can develop other energy sources, and the mitigation of climate change that has already begun—storm, drought, and wildfire incursion, ocean acidification, polar melting—are a few of them. Will continuing to pour personal efforts into Keystone only drain our ability to tackle larger issues?