Oil and Water

Just because something creates jobs does not make it an unequivocally good thing for the land and its denizens.

Yeah, I said it.

I know it’s not the prevailing wisdom.  I know we need jobs and industry within our borders.  Heck, I’m one of the mob, and at my (unpaid) internship, I see the results of poverty and unemployment every day.  But let’s be honest – right now, even the most short-term, dangerous, or downright terrifying ideas are touted as being good for the country/economy because they create jobs.  Job creating wins out over every conceivable negative.

There are already lot of blogs and articles out there about the Keystone XL pipeline.  I’m writing another one because I still don’t feel like it has had enough attention.  If you search for it in news, you get the usual more partisan news agencies covering it, like Fox and Huffington Post, but primarily the online noise is being made by interest groups.  Which is weird, considering how many people have been arrested protesting the thing, and how much of an impact it could conceivably have.

For those of you who haven’t heard, the basics are that the pipeline will be built from Canada across the United States to the Gulf Coast.  The pipeline will carry bitumen extracted from tar sands in Canada.  It has been touted by supporters as helping to decrease U.S. dependance on foreign oil,  lowering oil prices, and creating jobs.

First of all, I must point out that the pipeline is carrying crude from Canada.  So the whole “foreign oil” thing is, um, wrong.  Second and third, the positive impact on oil prices and jobs is not particularly impressive.  Certainly not impressive enough to balance the environmental issues.

The environmental worries, on the other hand, are myriad.  The most obvious one is spills. The pipeline will pass through the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies 30% of the groundwater pumped for irrigation across the country.  (Hard to imagine what could go wrong there.)  The existing keystone pipeline has already failed 14 times since it started operating a year ago.  Each failure resulted in crude oil being released into the environment.  Best part?  Failure is not just a remote possibility.  The Environmental Impact Statement released by the Department of state estimated that the pipeline will fail one to two times a year.

The process of extraction itself is expensive and messy, to the extent that it has kept businesses from exploiting the sands up to now.  But the oil demand has finally reached the point where the process is financially feasible.  The messy part remains a problem.  The process is extremely energy intensive, and Green House Gas release at the site is anywhere from 15% to 40% higher than for regular oil extraction.  A huge amount of water is necessary, then left toxic and unusable at the end of the process.

Humanity is spending a lot of time fighting over oil right now, because we’ve developed a culture heavily reliant on it. But we also have alternative options for power.  We will run out of oil eventually.  The changeover will likely be less traumatic if we start investing in those alternative options now, rather than sinking money into something that is, essentially, a short-term fix.  Oil may be necessary to our current civilization, but when we run out, we can survive.

We don’t actually have alternatives for water.   I live in a city and state that is already enmeshed in a long term, three-state legal battle over the rights to water from the Chattahoochee river.  Water shortages are not a remote, apocalyptic idea.  They have begun, and when the potable water is gone, so are we.  Pardon me for sounding dramatic, but I believe this issue warrants a high level concern.

I recognize that bitumen extraction is by no means the only industrial process that contaminates water, but we are now in a time when we know where the shortages will be.  It is extraordinarily short-sighted to sink money into developing another process that poisons water in order to extract oil.  This is my biggest problem with Keystone XL Pipeline.  In order to capitalize on a non-necessary resource, we are willing to contaminate a resource necessary to life.  But hey, it will create jobs.

Read and comment on the Keystone Environmental Impact Statement


U.S. Department of State Project Updates

Heather Hansen, Mega Myths of the Keystone XL Pipeline

Elizabeth Kolbert, Unconventional Crude

Wikipedia, Oil Sands