We Need to Move Forward On Keystone XL

04/10/2013 09:14 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

It's time to rebuild our energy infrastructure... and we should start with Keystone.

Supporting the expansion and development of our nation's infrastructure -- from highways to pipelines to railways to ports -- is one of the most critical elements of our ongoing economic recovery. These projects create jobs, generate revenue, and enable the free flow of energy, products, and people across the country.

The approval and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is one such project. Despite years of polarizing and rhetorically charged debate, the project deserves support.

For more than 1,600 days, the federal government has weighed the merits of permitting the Keystone XL pipeline. And for almost as long, the question of whether or not this pipeline should be constructed has been at the forefront of the debate surrounding U.S. energy and infrastructure policy.

The stakes are huge. To supporters, the case for construction is clear: permitting this pipeline will immediately create tens of thousands of jobs. It will enable us to integrate even more North American oil into our energy portfolio, reducing demand for fossil energy imported from the Middle East. And, importantly, it can all be done in a way that protects our environment.

Opponents, on the other hand, fear that the increased deployment of Canadian oil sands will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions and worry about potential spills. The recent incident in my home state of Arkansas has brought the issue again to the forefront with renewed intensity, and will no doubt be used by the opposition to call for the wholesale rejection of Keystone XL.

To scrutinize such projects is necessary and right. It is this scrutiny, alongside strict and effective regulations and good stewardship from the companies at the helm that helps ensure that our energy infrastructure operates at the safest and most efficient level possible. We have seen some dramatic technological improvements since the 1940s, when the Pegasus Pipeline was built, and our nation would be well served to be able to put those advances to use in our pipeline infrastructure.

It is vital, though, that the realities of our energy infrastructure be kept at the forefront of all considerations, and that we resist the urge to conflate an incident like the leak at Pegasus with the construction of Keystone XL -- a pipeline that would employ cutting-edge technology in ensuring its operational security.

There are more than two million miles of pipeline in the United States. This crucial network transports the oil, natural gas, chemicals and other products to points in every corner of the nation, from Washington to Florida, and California to Maine. They are, in a manner of speaking, the arteries that pump the lifeblood of our economy, fuel our vehicles, and heat our homes.

Pipelines are the safest and most effective means of transporting these needed products; in fact, nearly two-thirds of the total energy products consumed in the United States are transported through pipelines. Personally, I would argue that they are dramatically friendlier to the environment than the alternative of transporting via truck or rail.

Pipeline safety -- thanks not only to technology but also to policy -- has made significant strides in the last decade. Federal oversight of our pipeline infrastructure has improved steadily since passage of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002, and federal regulators have worked effectively in partnership with State inspection bodies to ensure that a risk-based system governs the entire system. Additionally, monitors and safeguards employed in new pipelines ensure that if a breach does occur, flow can be shut down almost immediately, effectively mitigating any adverse impacts.

Unfortunately, there is no risk-free means of transporting the energy products that we need, but for decades pipelines have demonstrated that they are the safest and most economically efficient means of moving needed energy resources from place to place.

Lawmakers recognize this and have expressed support for the pipeline in growing numbers, culminating in the strong bi-partisan adoption of a Senate resolution in March by a filibuster-proof majority of members.

We should, of course, incorporate what we learn from incidents like the one this week in Arkansas -- taking care always to prioritize the protection of our land and water.

On Keystone XL, the president and Congress should consider the science, recognize the potential for growth, and finally approve the pipeline and let construction begin. We should not squander this opportunity to improve and enhance the safety and reach of this vital network. It has the added benefit of creating thousands of jobs and providing an environmentally friendly means to transport our nation's energy needs.