The Agenda

Robert Bryce on the Keystone Pipeline

Robert Bryce, author of the excellent Power Hungry (you’d be crazy not to read it), has written a short article for NRO on “The Ten Reasons Why the Keystone Pipeline Will Be Built.” The pipeline, as Bryce explains, has proven extremely controversial, and it has been opposed not only by prominent greens like climate activist Bill McKibben and climate scientist James Hansen, but also Dave Heineman, the conservative Republican governor of Nebraska. As I understand it, Gov. Heineman’s concerns are rooted in the fact that the Keystone XL pipeline will cross the vulnerable Oglalla aquifer:

Heineman said he supports pipeline projects but opposes the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL route that would cross the vast Ogallala aquifer.

In a letter to Obama and Clinton, the Republican governor said he was concerned about the potential threat to the crucial water source for Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers. The aquifer also supplies drinking water to about 2 million people in Nebraska and seven other states.

“This resource is the lifeblood of Nebraska’s agricultural economy,” Heineman said in the letter. “Cash receipts from farm markets contribute over $17 billion to Nebraska’s economy annually. I am concerned that the proposed pipeline will have potentially detrimental effects on this valuable natural resource and Nebraska’s economy.”

Management of the Oglalla aquifer is a serious issue. Threats to the aquifer, and the fact that the water table has decreased markedly in recent decades, are one reason why I think we need to price the use of water resources in a more intelligent fashion, an approach that might shift agriculture to well-watered agricultural land further east. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to to agree with Bryce: the pipeline will and should be built.  

Bryce makes a number of interesting observations, e.g., 

Demonize oil all you want, but coal is the real issue when it comes to carbon-dioxide emissions. Again, look at the numbers: Over the past decade, global coal use increased by 47 percent to about 71.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. During that same time period, oil use increased by 13 percent to about 87.3 million barrels per day. If Hansen, McKibben, and their allies want to protest projects that result in lots of carbon-dioxide emissions, they should be looking for coal mines and coal-fired generators, not oil pipelines. But protesting against coal means protesting against electricity generation, because most coal is used for that purpose. Over the past decade, electricity demand in Asia jumped by a whopping 85 percent. All over the world, people are turning on lights in their homes for the very first time. That trend will continue.

Elsewhere, Bryce has emphasized the importance of transitioning away from coal by relying more heavily on natural gas as a bridge to heavier reliance on nuclear power. Advancing this “N2N” solution would, I suspect, prove a more constructive strategy for climate activists than opposing exploitation of the oil sands

Bryce also observes that the pipeline would absorb some of the slack refining capacity in and around Texas, and that there is a security advantage in relying on North American oil sources rather than, say, the volatile Persian Gulf region. It should be stressed that there is no price advantage, as the price of oil is determined on a global market, but rather we can rely on Canadian supplies if and when conflict erupts elsewhere in the world. Let’s not even consider what might happen if heavily-armed Alberta separatists start running amok. If that happens, it really is game over, to use Bill McKibben’s evocative phrase. 


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