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Nigel Barber

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Keystone Pipeline: Gift Horse or Threat to America

Posted: 01/18/12 08:51 PM ET

From the Canadian perspective, U.S. dithering over the pipeline project linking Canada to the Gulf Coast is an act of monumental stupidity. If we turn down the project, then the oil from Canada's tar sands will ultimately be sold to Asia despite current domestic opposition to a Pacific pipeline.

Meanwhile, we continue to battle in the hostile countries of the Middle East in a campaign seemingly designed to protect our energy security. Why not accept oil from friendly Canada rather that buying Middle East oil with blood?

American environmentalists see matters very differently, believing that the pipeline is a disaster in the making. Key issues include:

  • Extraction of the oil harms Alberta's land and creates large pools of toxic waste.

  • Tar sands oil produces more greenhouse gases than oil from conventional wells.

  • It is corrosive and likely to cause leaks in the pipeline endangering drinking water and wild life.

  • We should achieve energy security by developing clean energy instead.


The Keystone pipeline pits jobs for Americans versus environmentalism and is politically toxic to the Obama administration, which is why Obama wanted to kick the can down the road whereas Republicans want to force an early Presidential decision on the project that can be used as a stick to beat him with during the election. Now Obama seems poised to reject the pipeline based on objection to the route, leaving the door open to a new application.

Here we see political personalities in action with their penchant for seeing everything in black and white, or our side versus theirs. Yet, a more mature perspective is possible, indeed essential.

If the Obama administration eventually gives a green light to the project, it is necessary that the pipeline is built to rigorous specifications that minimize any threat of leaks. Moreover, it behooves us to devise ways of reducing oil consumption and limiting production of greenhouse gases. Of course we should pursue renewable energy sources but that is a long term project that cannot satisfy current energy needs.

That leaves the threat to wilderness areas that sit atop the tar sands. Mining tar sands in Canada is a messy business involving destruction of pristine wilderness areas through strip mining. An alternative technique -- also destructive of ecosystems -- involves heating the tar in the ground so that it is liquid enough to be pumped to the surface. Whether to go ahead with strip mining and other destructive techniques is a decision for the Canadians and they seem to have decided to go ahead.

Whatever decision is reached, on the pipeline, we need to balance both sides of the debate in a mature way. Yet that may not happen. We are likely to get politics as usual. That is why we still have no coherent energy policy and have had no administrative leadership on environmental questions since the days of President Carter.

Energy security and renewable energy sources are both worthy goals. One does not have to be the enemy of the other. Both can be, and should be, pursued. We need someone who can get beyond the black and white of political talking points and articulate what is in the national interest. We need leadership. Our need for leadership on energy issues is equivalent to the lack of vision on environmental matters.