By Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune, March 24, 2017
The Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch over 1,200 miles and cost $8 billion, is a big project that has faced many hurdles. One of those was removed Friday when President Donald Trump gave the go-ahead for its construction.
Unfortunately, it’s also a big symbol for those who want to phase out the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. That’s a shame, because the pipeline will make little if any difference in the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. Environmental groups would do better to save their ammunition to fight more consequential changes the administration is expected to pursue, such as rolling back federal regulations to limit coal burning and methane emissions.
President Barack Obama blocked construction of Keystone in 2015, claiming it would aggravate global warming and undercut American leadership on the issue. But a State Department review in 2013 found the effects would be minimal.
The Canadian tar sands oil it would carry is likely to be extracted and burned regardless. But from an environmental and public safety standpoint, the risks of moving petroleum in pipelines are lower than the risks of carrying it on rail cars and trucks through populated areas.
The jobs that would be created, estimated at some 40,000, are not to be sneezed at just because most of them are temporary. In the modern economy, no job lasts forever.
Trump’s decision hardly assures completion. It merely gives the pipeline a chance to stand on its economic merits. Oil prices have fallen since it was first planned, though, dampening demand for the relatively expensive tar sands oil. “Statoil and Total, two European energy giants, have abandoned their production projects,” reports The New York Times. “In recent weeks, Royal Dutch Shell agreed to sell most of its tar sands assets.”
The pipeline faces other impediments. TransCanada, the company behind it, says it still has to obtain various approvals in Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, vows to “defeat this pipeline in the courts and in the court of public opinion.”
But most Americans are not ready to give up petroleum just yet, and you can’t use oil unless you can get it from producer to consumer. It would make far more sense to impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, which would promote conservation by raising prices.
Stopping the pipeline, by contrast, would be unlikely to reduce the output of greenhouse gases. There are already 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines running across the United States. What’s so special about this tiny addition to that vast network?
The same can be said for the Dakota Access pipeline, which was the target of an extended protest by Native American tribes, particularly the Standing Rock Sioux, which saw it as a threat to their sacred lands. But the pipeline, which would terminate in southern Illinois, doesn’t actually cross the Standing Rock reservation, and a federal court this month declined to stop construction after concluding that the lawsuit alleging a violation of religious freedom was not likely to succeed.
Pipelines are generally the safest and most efficient way to move oil. Until such time as it’s no longer needed for the functioning of the U.S. and world economies, they ought to have priority. For the moment, at least, it appears they do.