Back in January, the Obama administration blocked construction of the full Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada to the United States. Oh, how times have changed. Last week, President Obama went to Oklahoma and in a rapid reversal — even for a politician — he declared he would expedite construction of the southern part of the Keystone pipeline, extending from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. Not only is administration approval unnecessary for this section of the pipeline since it doesn’t cross the border, but somewhat hilariously, this flip-flip managed to unite environmentalists and conservatives in anger. The former feel betrayed and the latter think this is a political ploy in an election year. Both groups are right.
The Keystone pipeline has attracted criticism because, if fully constructed, it would involve drilling tar sands in Alberta. Tar or oil sand drilling — the oil is literally mixed into the sand — is a particularly unclean and difficult method for oil extraction, requiring more effort and leading to substantially more dissemination of greenhouse gases than other methods. Proponents of the pipeline have argued it would lower American dependence on imported oil and create thousands of jobs. At a time when our oil supply is in foreign hands and the unemployment rate is over 8 percent, these are pretty good selling points.
However, a study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute has shown that the economic benefits of the pipeline are offset by its high risk for spills. Between 2007 and 2010, pipelines that carry tar sand-derived oil suffered more spills per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. As originally proposed, the pipeline would cross through a fresh water source in Nebraska that serves over 2 million Americans and provides water to irrigate farms and ranches. Additionally, the Keystone pipeline will not substantially increase Canadian oil imports to the United States, according to the Department of Energy. Finally, there are concerns that if TransCanada — the corporation in charge of the pipeline — gets approval for the northern part of the pipeline, oil will simply bypass the Midwest and be shipped out from the Gulf for profit.
The risk and ramifications of oil spills should not be lightly dismissed. It is time that supposedly pro-environment politicians take concrete steps to wean us off oil. One immediate step that Congress can and should take is renewing the renewable energy production tax credit, which will otherwise expire by the end of this year. This tax credit incentivizes renewable energy projects, sustaining the wind energy industry, for example.
I understand why Obama, facing a difficult re-election, changed his tune on the Keystone pipeline. A drop in gas prices or the unemployment rate would both be good for his political prospects. Pretending consistency, the Obama administration will argue that it never intended to definitively reject the pipeline. But sanctioning the Keystone pipeline — even if the president claims that he still wants the northern part to be rigorously evaluated before he allows it to be built — is not the solution to our energy or economic problems. In fact, it may create more issues than it solves.
Saheli Sadanand is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .