Keystone XL Oil Pipeline: A Symbolic Struggle Steeped In Fuzzy Math

Posted by Trish Riley, November 5, 2011

Protestors in San Francisco make their feelings on the Keystone XL pipeline known late last month.

This is the second of two articles about the controversy surrounding the development of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The first installment can be found here.

At the end of September, the mayor of tiny Atkinson, Neb., sat calmly waiting for an invasion. David Frederick’s rural outpost of about 1,000 residents, set along the northeastern edge of Nebraska’s Sandhills, was about to see its population briefly swelled by a phalanx of U.S. State Department officials, itinerant union laborers, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists and reporters.

The crowds were headed Frederick’s way for a final public airing of opinions along the proposed route of the Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile stretch of pipe and pumps that would link a mammoth oil patch in Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Nebraska would account for 257 of those miles, and maps show the proposed pipeline slicing clear through the state’s midsection, passing a few miles west of Atkinson.

But there are also lots of other towns near the proposed oil route, and it wasn’t clear even to Frederick how Atkinson’s high school gymnasium had been chosen for the national spotlight. “I’ve never been directly contacted,” the mayor said in his tidy Main Street office just hours before the throngs arrived. “This was very much presented as, ‘The State Department is having a party, you’re going to host it and you’re in charge of cleaning up afterward.’ ”

Oil pipelines can have a similar way of just showing up, and as environmental groups or local residents dispute such landgrabs, acrimony tends to follow. Even for a pipeline, though, the debate surrounding the Keystone XL project has been rancorous. Charges of high-level malfeasance and corporate bullying mingle with accusations of environmental alarmism and energy ignorance in what arguably has become the most hotly debated stretch of oil pipeline in the nation’s history.

For more than three years, the State Department, which must grant a permit for the project to cross the U.S. border, has deliberated over the pipeline’s potential impacts and whether it is in the national interest. The rhetorical skirmishing has become increasingly heated during that time, with pipeline opponents accusing State of pandering to industry while supporters charge anti-oil activists with hijacking the issue to further their cause.

Much of the attention thus far has focused on the potential environmental impacts of the pipeline, as well as the State Department’s handling of the review. But a close examination of other aspects of the project suggests that the struggle is in many ways a symbolic one, pitting supporters of clean energy against those who say fossil fuels aren’t going away anytime soon. At the same time, the contributions of Keystone XL to employment and energy security in the United States often don’t match the claims of its proponents — and TransCanada, the company behind the project, is often guilty of fudging the numbers to make its case for the pipeline.

For his part, Mayor Frederick said he doesn’t mind the pipeline. He just wishes it went around, rather than through, the massive aquifer that feeds his community and hundreds of others across that part of the American breadbasket. He also said he wasn’t sure what his town stood to gain by having the line pass through the area. “I’m not sure how it would affect our local economy,” Frederick said. “But that’s how I’m going to be as a businessman and a local taxpayer. I want to know, what’s our benefit?”

Continue reading at the Huffington Post
By Tom Zeller Jr.