Amid the sustainability discussions happening around the University, there are events in motion that have drum circles everywhere up in arms. TransCanada is currently in the process of having plans approved to extend its Keystone pipeline through parts of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. This move by the Canadian company is under fire by environmental groups across the country and has been the focal point of protests — resulting in nearly 1,000 arrests — in our nation’s capital.

This issue dates back to 2008 when the first proposal for the extension was given — the preliminary approvals by the National Energy Board followed in March 2010. Yet with a final endorsement by President Barack Obama expected to be handed down before the year’s end, environmental groups — like the National Wildlife Federation — are turning up the heat on the protests and perhaps with good reason.

On Aug. 26 the United States State Department issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) concerning precisely what the title implies — the effect the Keystone XL will have on the environment. The report highlights topics such as oil spill potential and response, greenhouse gas emissions and the effect the expansion will have on the Northern High Plains Aquifer system. Despite the extensiveness of the report, it did little to sway NWF’s senior vice president Jim Lyon, who claims the FEIS “still fails to address the key concerns for landowners and wildlife.”

This may be somewhat true, but I’m going to go out on a limb and trust the State Department isn’t secretly trying to destroy the Great Plains. The State Department has covered most of its bases concerning the potential effect of the Keystone XL expansion. One of NWF’s main concerns — thoroughly addressed in the FEIS — is the Northern High Plains Aquifer system. This aquifer system accounts for nearly 30 percent of irrigation and agricultural water supply in the U.S. and lies directly beneath the proposed path of the pipeline.

A failure in the Keystone XL extension would undoubtedly have a significant impact on the acute region where the spill occurs, but the State Department is certain that an oil spill would not have a devastating effect on the entire aquifer. This conclusion is based on studies of previous spills occurring in locations with similar relationships to aquifer systems. In these cases, only limited regions of the aquifers were affected. The State Department goes on to say “in no spill incident scenario would the entire Northern High Plains Aquifer system be adversely affected.”

The various environmental concerns of the NWF are warranted, but based on the extent of the FEIS, it seems like the State Department has done its homework. Naturally, reservations will always linger in the minds of those hell-bent on saving the environment, but in this case the reward appears to outweigh the risk.

Part of the reward is an energized economy. The $7 billion project would create nearly 20,000 job opportunities during the construction and operation phases of Keystone XL. This alone might be enough to get the seal of approval from Obama. The U.S. already has 200,000 miles of existing pipelines that supply thousands of jobs and deliver a product that we can’t seem to live without — what’s another 2,000 miles of pipes?

The U.S. should be devoting a large sum of money toward the research and development of a sustainable energy source, but that doesn’t change the fact that our country runs on petroleum. Though it would be nice to one day live in a zero-emissions world, the fact remains that such a world doesn’t exist and probably won’t for quite some time. With that in mind, it ends up being economically and — believe it or not — ecologically friendly to spend money on improving the oil distribution system, which in the long run will cut down costs and emissions associated with the transportation of oil.

Another pessimism associated with Keystone XL is the idea that the extended pipeline is going to increase America’s dependence on oil. That’s like saying if a drug dealer moves next door to a crackhead, the latter is going to become more of an addict. Not true. It just allows the crackhead to get his fix without going to the shady part of town. For a country that already imports 10 of its 15 million barrels of oil per day, we should certainly be looking for ways to better interact with our polite neighbors to the north, and distance ourselves from an increasingly tumultuous Middle East.

There is no clear answer to the Keystone XL pipeline dilemma, and though the project isn’t set in stone, it seems inevitable. You can talk all you want about the negative impact this pipeline is going to have, but in the end, even your Prius can’t run on sunshine and rainbows forever. TransCanada has its shovel ready to break ground on the project, and it might be time for the opposition to stop kidding itself.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.