OPINION: Pipeline opposition is wishful thinkingWhat other options do we have that will provide a more acceptable bridge to a theoretically sustainable future? Exactly none.
By: Rick Snedeker, Guest columnist
President Obama is wary of it. Environmentalists, naturally, are against it just because. And quite a few other people seem to find it darkly threatening, as well. Various diffuse objections against the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL petroleum-pipeline extension project have generated healthy debate, but they’ve also oiled the waters of objective reality.
It’s important to note that even if opponents succeed in clamping off the Keystone extension project, it wouldn’t end the flow of Canadian tar-sand crude oil into our country — the original Keystone pipeline since June 2010 has been pouring 435,000 barrels of oil per day into the United States through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois, and that will continue. Blocking this extension also will not wish away America’s and the rest of the world’s inevitable and continuing need for oil for many decades to come, with or without major advances in renewable energy. It’s a sobering reality but one wholly embraced by a broad consensus of energy experts globally. So there appears to be no ignoring it: We’ll all need every drop of oil we can get for a long, long time to power the civilizations mankind has created; the only question is, from whom will we get it? Why not at least get some of it from a kissing-cousin neighbor?
The current conflict is about one of three proposed Keystone extensions — Phase 4 — an 1,179-mile pipeline that will transport oil through 26 pump stations from TransCanada’s tar-sands fields near Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., and increase Keystone’s combined volume to 1.3 million barrels per day. At issue is that the proposed route would have passed over important Native American sites and the essential Ogallala Aquifer in South Dakota, and through Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sand Hills. TransCanada says it will soon submit a revised route to circumvent those sites. A U.S. government report has already affirmed that even the original extension route would not have posed unacceptable environmental risks, so a rerouted plan should at least be equally palatable.
It’s true that oil from tar-sands is thick, nasty sludge, compared to the light, olive-oil-like petroleum that some countries like Saudi Arabia can produce at a premium, but light oil is growing rarer by the minute, and even the Saudis are developing more heavy-crude fields these days. So, before too long, most available oil will probably be heavy oil.
There are also arguments about increased emissions from energy-intensive tar-sands production, but that increase in the grand scheme of energy things is incidental, especially when you consider that oil imported from, say, the Mideast, requires a ton of energy (actually many tons) to ship to America. So, it’s kind of a wash.
This being the Green Age, a lot of folks are just opposed on principle to burning fossil fuels, and are committed to blocking any expansion of oil use. If it were possible to ramp-up development of renewable, sustainable energy sources so that, in the next few decades, they could replace or even significantly reduce the nation’s and world’s fast-growing appetite for fossil fuels, that would be one thing.
But no serious energy expert today believes that is remotely possible.
So, we need to hold our noses for a while, unfortunately, while, at the same time, trying to get our governments and selves to commit the necessary resources and focus to developing and creating alternative energy potentials in a completely unprecedented way.
Someday, very likely in less than a century, the world’s supply of oil will start to slowly circle the drain. We can bet the farm that the end-game of that process won’t be pretty.
But, in the meantime, relatively cheap oil, with world-beating energy potential packed into its molecules, and its easily transportable nature, is still king of the world. To try to hasten an imagined but highly unlikely green world in the foreseeable future by blocking a significant new supply of oil at our doorstep would be, to put it mildly, self-defeating.
This is a heaven-sent opportunity, not a potential calamity. Yes, there could be an oil spill. Yes, fossil fuels are nonrenewable and unkind to the environment.
But what other options do we have that will provide a more acceptable bridge to a theoretically sustainable future?
Rick Snedeker, of Alexandria, retired in 2011 as a quarterly magazine editor for Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia. He was a copy editor and columnist for the Rapid City Journal from 1989 to 2000.