There are 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing the United States, but just one proposed stretch, from Canada to Nebraska, has been demonized. Or maybe owlified is a better term.
The 1,200-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline would connect the oil sands of Alberta to an existing network of pipelines in Steele City, Neb., for the rest of the journey down to the Gulf Coast. Another branch of the Keystone system goes east from Steele City to downstate oil hubs in Patoka and Wood River. We’re guessing you didn’t know about the segment of Keystone pipeline here in Illinois. But surely you’ve heard about the Keystone XL because it’s the northern spotted owl of current politics: shorthand for the jobs vs. environment debate.
Back in the 1992 presidential campaign, the candidates debated whether protecting endangered spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest would kill the logging economy. President George H.W. Bush dismissed the “spotted owl crowd” as environmental extremists. Bill Clinton, after winning election, settled on a compromise that put aside some forest for the owls. Owlmageddon was averted.
This time it’s the Keystone XL, the focus of a fight almost as long-running as the pipeline would be.
A Canadian company, TransCanada, wants to build the $8 billion Keystone XL. There is nothing unusual about this pipeline except that it would cross an international border, so it requires executive branch approval. TransCanada’s plans date to 2008 and made good sense from the start — even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw nothing amiss. In October 2010 Clinton said the State Department needed to finish an analysis before granting permit approval, “but we are inclined to do so.” The State Department still hasn’t finished that study but not all is static: Clinton the candidate is now against the pipeline.
When TransCanada formulated its plan, oil prices were in the $40 range but surely headed upward over time, and so was concern about relying on the turbulent Middle East for future oil supply. Meanwhile, in peaceful Western Canada the economics justified mining oil sand, processing it into heavy crude and shipping it south. Oil prices, always volatile, have skyrocketed and then plummeted, but TransCanada says its shippers still want the XL. A new pipeline would mean a dependable source of oil from Canada, as well as North Dakota, plus jobs and safer passage than shipping the oil by rail.
Prospects for the Keystone XL began to cloud during the second term of President Barack Obama. Environmental activists, including billionaire Tom Steyer, saw the chance to defeat a fossil fuel project as a way to gain momentum in the broader fight against global warming. Some Nebraskans have safety concerns about the route the pipeline would take, but it’s obvious that all the focus is on what the Keystone pipeline symbolizes, not what it would actually do. That’s more true now as the clock ticks toward December, when the world’s governments will convene in Paris for a summit on climate change.
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