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Christopher F. Jones Headshot

An Oil Sand Marriage?

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The U.S. State Department announced on January 19th that they would deny the current application for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry petroleum from Canada's oil sands through the Midwest to refineries in Texas. It was a good decision. The pipeline's proponents will likely submit a revised proposal soon. It should also be rejected.

Pipelines are like marriages: they are meant to last several decades. We have to ask ourselves not only whether we want such a pipeline now, we have to determine whether we want to spend the rest of our lives with it.

Such a long-term commitment means asking hard questions, ones we typically reserve for such momentous occasions.

We often think of technologies as disposable. Smartphones are usually obsolete within three years as sleeker and sexier phones entice us. If a laptop survives five years, it's practically a relic. Even cars rarely last longer than a dozen years. When a technology is old, it is replaced with something newer and better. In essence, we are used to having casual dating relationships with our gadgets.

These short time frames drive us to make decisions about technologies based upon our needs in the present. And why not? The consequences of a bad choice are relatively minor. After a year or two, we can discard the bad choice and hopefully make a wiser selection next time.

The same is not true for pipelines. Once built, energy infrastructures typically last for generations. More than half of the coal-fired power plants in the United States are over 40 years old. No large oil refinery has been built in America since 1976; instead, old ones have been expanded. Utility companies love old infrastructure because it has usually been paid off and is grandfathered into old rules of regulation. They are the cash cows of the energy industry.

Most debates about the Keystone pipeline are focused on the present. If you listen to the advocates of the Keystone pipeline, you'll hear claims mostly about the pipeline's short-term benefits. They emphasize the creation of lucrative construction jobs and access to a source of oil that is controlled by a friendly government.

These sound like compelling benefits. After all, it's hard to be against more jobs and lower revenues for hostile governments (though as opponents note, it's easy to be against the environmentally destructive manner in which tar-sand oil is produced and the big oil money that is behind the project). But when dealing with decisions about infrastructures designed to last many decades, we cannot focus exclusively on the present. We must consider whether we would still be happy with our decision in twenty, forty, and even sixty years. From this long-term perspective, the Keystone pipeline looks worse and worse. Consider the following:

1) Once the pipeline is complete, the jobs dedicated to its construction will be gone. The number of permanent positions will be quite small because pipelines are highly automated technologies that require only minimal labor to operate. The pipeline will not be a significant source of long-term employment.

2) Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that climate change will be a more direct and difficult problem in the coming decades. Because tar-sand oil requires enormous quantities of energy (as well as water and land) to produce, it releases more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil (estimates vary from as low as 5-15% in a study by industry insiders to as high as 37% in some literature reviews). As climate change gets worse, increasing our use of tar-sand oil will become a progressively worse idea.

3) The longer a pipeline operates, the greater the risk of an environmentally disastrous spill. At one level, this is a straightforward risk probability: more time operating means more chances for something to go wrong. And there are many things that might go wrong including a natural disaster like an earthquake or tornado rupturing the pipe, broken equipment, human error, or even sabotage. But it is also the case that failure rates on all technologies increase as they age. Metal experiences fatigue, connections can get brittle, and these degradations make spills more likely. Over time, therefore, the pipeline will become increasingly dangerous to the areas through which it passes.

So if the present problems with the Keystone pipeline are not enough, the long-term drawbacks should tip the scales towards having cold feet. Moreover, the Keystone pipeline is not the only option. There are a number of more compelling infrastructure partners that we might want to consider -- technologies that will help produce and transport energy sources with lower levels of pollution. For example, it would be much wiser to invest in a proposed transmission grid to bring offshore wind power to the eastern seaboard or more capacity to deliver Iowa's wind energy to markets. These projects would enhance our use of renewable energy, not fossil fuels. They offer a far more suitable long-term match.

Remember: we date our gadgets, but we marry our infrastructure. This is not the pipeline that we want to bring home to meet our parents, raise children with, or rely on for the rest of our years. This pipeline is not worth marrying.