BY THOMAS SACCENTE – STAFF WRITER
Oil is a resource that forms a critical facet of not just American society, but societies around the world. Although fuel prices dwindled in recent months and car companies became more aggressive in their production and advertisement of more fuel-efficient vehicles, the search for reliable sources of oil continues. The fact of the matter is that humanity remains dependent on oil for its survival and oil companies, in their desire to profit from this necessity, will keep searching for domestic sources to cut out foreign competition. This is especially true for American and Canadian oil companies, who scour all sections of the Western Hemisphere to compete against their powerful rivals in the Middle East and Russia.
However, despite best intentions, the search for oil is plagued by its own share of problems. The process of drilling for oil and then extracting it from the ground can cause permanent damage to the surrounding environment and possibly render the entire ecosystem uninhabitable to the original occupants. The distribution of said oil can be even more problematic, with possible leaks in the means of transportation and much-publicized catastrophes, such as the Exxon Valdez spill, calling attention to the harmful effect that the oil itself can have on the natural world. Between all of these things and the harmful emissions caused by burning oil, it comes as no surprise that the proposal for the Keystone XL Pipeline continues to generate controversy and has become a hot-button issue in the political domain.
The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposal that floated around Congress for the past few years. Originally created in 2008 by the TransCanada Corporation, it is designed to be an extension of the preexisting Keystone Pipeline system, which starts in Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta, Canada and carries hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil to various refineries and storage facilities in the Southern and Mid-Western United States. There are currently three major pipelines in this system, all of which were approved and built without any kind of major controversy from Congress and continue to be active to this day. The proposed pipeline would start in Alberta, Canada, cross the border into Montana, travel southeast into South Dakota, and come to an end in the town of Steele City, Nebraska. The town already serves as the functioning point for all of the previously established pipelines and would make it possible for the oil to be carried even further across the country. This would allow for 830,000 barrels of oil to make its way from Canada to Nebraska every day, thereby increasing the range and productivity of an already successful oil company.
However, since this pipeline was first proposed, there are two fiercely opposing sides about it. The creators and supporters of the Keystone XL extension proposal, which include the governors of the states into which the proposed pipeline would cross, focus their arguments on the economic benefits that this pipeline would bring to the American people. They say that the pipeline would allow for easier access to oil because American companies will not have to import it from the Middle East to get it. This would allow for greater control over the resource and would both make American fuel companies more profitable and eliminate the risk that come from transporting oil internationally by way of oil tankers. In addition, they claim that the pipeline would also provide jobs for many Americans that would not have existed otherwise, which will supposedly provide the economy with a much-needed stimulation.
Opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline have their own view on the proposed pipeline, one in which the possible consequences of the pipeline would outweigh all possible benefits. A key facet of their argument lies in the fact that the American section of the pipeline would run across the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world’s largest sources of groundwater, covering a total area of approximately 450,000 square kilometers across eight different states from South Dakota to Texas and yielding about 30 percent of the water used for irrigation in the United States. It is considered essential to not only the people who live in the area, but also to the entire country because it provides water for about 27 percent of irrigated land in the United States.
Therefore, many are worried that if the pipeline were built and a leak occurred over this particular area the spilled oil would enter the Ogallala Aquifer and render it completely unusable. This would, in turn, be a heavy blow to not only American agriculture, but also the general food supply as a whole. This is not helped by the fact that the aquifer is greatly depleted from the years of use and environmentalists are determined to preserve what lower levels of water remains at any cost. While pipelines are generally considered a safer means of oil transportation than oil tankers or trains, they are not immune to failure and people are concerned that the risk of a leak over this particular area is a risk that should not be taken at all.
There is another element in the controversy surrounding the pipeline that the first three pipelines did not encounter: Native American populations. The proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline stated that significant sections of the pipeline would go through the lands of Native American reservations, particularly those owned by the Lakota people in the Midwest and various other groups indigenous to Canada called Aboriginals. In addition, this pipeline was designed without the input of the tribes that own this land and TransCanada did not seek the approval of these tribes before they proposed it to Congress.
According to Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Dr. Brett Werner, this has caused many Native Americans and advocacy groups to protest the pipeline. They accuse the TransCanada Corporation and the supporters of the proposal of putting their interests above those of Native Americans.
“A big part of issue has to do with sovereignty. Reservations in the United States are Native American sovereign property, and they have control over that. You can’t just send a pipeline there just because it runs through North Dakota or South Dakota or whatever. It turns into an issue for them where they’re worried about having control of their property. There is some level of an environmental concern for many Native American groups too,” Dr. Werner said.
With all of these potential benefits and risks in place, Congress is divided over whether the Keystone XL pipeline should be built or not. The proposal passed back and forth between Congress, the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other facets of the government since its original creation in 2008 trying to determine whether pipeline would be worth building or if the risks are just too great. All of these people researched the subject, and the Department of State issued the TransCanada Corporation a number of requests to change various aspects of the original proposal.
According to Assistant Professor of Politics Dr. Benjamin Knoll, the fact that it became so controversial is perfectly demonstrated by how it took significant time for the proposal to reach President Obama for approval. There so many aspects of this pipeline to take into account when talking about it. It has even reached the point that both the Democrats and Republicans are using it as a means to gain political leverage over the other in the upcoming campaign season.
“It has taken a long time because there are many considerations at stake. The State Department has some jurisdiction because it’s been deemed a matter of ‘national interest’ and because it crosses an international border. They were working on a review of its potential economic and environmental impact well through 2012. There were also a number of legal challenges to the pipeline that delayed the issue for some years. There was also a political component to this, as it quickly became a polarized partisan issue and so both Congress and President Obama sought to use the issue to their advantage by either delaying or pressing for passage of the pipeline strategically during campaign seasons,” Dr. Knoll said.
However, despite the support that the proposal received in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, President Obama vetoed the proposal on Feb. 24, 2015, rendering it effectively in limbo for the time being. In an interview with Fargo, North Dakota television news station WDAY, he explained that although he is in favor of promoting American oil production, the proposed Keystone Pipeline XL would only aid the distribution of Canadian oil and would get in the way of American progress in the same field. In addition, President Obama claimed that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not significantly help the American economy because it would only create 300 permanent jobs at the most, and would primarily benefit Canada above anything else. Nonetheless, many claim that this should not be considered the definitive end of the Keystone XL pipeline. The GOP is currently in the midst of trying to override the veto, while the Canadian government is adamant about moving forward with the project if the GOP fails to do so, with Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford saying that it is only a matter of time before the Keystone XL pipeline is finally built.
The proposal for the Keystone XL Pipeline is one that is rife with controversy and intrigue, with both sides of the argument making strong cases for why the pipeline should or should not be built. Even if it never gets built at all, the Keystone XL Pipeline does raise many interesting questions about the conflict between environmentalism and the expansion of industry, especially the extent to which society should or should not exploit natural resources for our own gain. With both the pros and the cons to take into account, chances are good that we have not seen the last of this proposal and others like it.