Phc News: Columns - April 2013: Max Rohr
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Phc News: Columns - April 2013: Max Rohr

Keystone XL

By Max Rohr, Contributing Writer

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is a quintessential hot button economic and environmental issue. The project could end up being a welcome alternative to an OPEC country oil supply, but it could also become a total environmental disaster. Unfortunately, it is not going to be a silver bullet. There is no unlimited hoard of oil that we can drop a straw into and not have to worry about again. The question is whether this pipeline is a smart move towards our long term energy independence.

There is currently an operational keystone pipeline that goes east from Alberta, Canada, south through the Dakotas and Nebraska, and then splits to Illinois and Oklahoma. This long line has been operational since 2010. Essentially, the Keystone XL project that is in the news now would connect the Alberta tar sands source to the Gulf of Mexico using new and existing lines. A pro of this suggested new route is that it adds capacity and reduces miles for Canadian oil to the midwest. A con is that the new route is much more invasive to some important environmental areas of our country.


The Keystone XL presents conflicts because the idea of having a Canadian supply of oil delivered to the doorsteps of the midwest, is a much better situation than what we currently have with OPEC nations overseas. We aren’t going to have to station troops in Montana to protect our oil supply chain like we would in a place like Kuwait. Trade with Canada strikes most Americans as a welcome alternative to the Middle East.

How much oil are we talking about here? We have used roughly 7 billion barrels of oil per year over the last 15 years in the U.S. according to the EIA. At full capacity, the Keystone XL pipeline could add about 500,000 barrels per day from western Canada to the Gulf of Mexico according to TransCanada. If we stored every drop of oil we got out of the Keystone XL pipeline for a full year, assuming they are at 100 percent production every day, that oil would power our economy for about 10 days in a given year. This came as a bit of a shock to me. You would think the Keystone XL would be more of a game changer at the proposed $7 billion price tag.

Would the pipeline be a big boost to our economy from a jobs standpoint?

Sally Kohn, a contributor to Fox News, said in an article, “In 2008, TransCanada’s original permit application to the State Department said the Keystone XL pipeline would create ‘a peak workforce of approximately 3,500 to 4,200 construction personnel’ in temporary jobs building the pipeline.”

Kohn went on to say in the article that in 2011, TransCanada changed these numbers up to 20,000, but they didn’t say exactly why the number shifted. The key point for me here is that, 3,500 or 20,000, they will be two or three year jobs. Also, Canada has not approved the pipeline as of February 2013.

Like any environmental issue, there will be some alarmists who say the pipeline is the worst thing to ever happen to the earth. However, you would also have to be in complete denial of basic science to say that this pipeline doesn’t take a very risky route across our nation. The proposed route of the Keystone XL would go over the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the biggest natural tanks of fresh water in the world and sits under eight states. The USGS Colorado Water Science Center noted in its “High Plans Regional Ground-water” study that this aquifer composes roughly 30 percent of all groundwater used for irrigation in our country and supplies 82 percent of the drinking water to High Plains residents.


Recovering from an oil spill that seeps into the Ogallala Aquifer would make any other oil spill our country has seen look simple to rectify in comparison. Residents near the following pipeline spills, all occurring since BP’s Deepwater Horizon, have seen these devastating effects: ExxonMobil’s 2011 Yellowstone River, Enbridge’s 2010 Kalamazoo River spill, Chevron’s 2010 Red Butte Creek spill, and Trans-Alaska’s 2010 Anchorage spill. A notable addition to the list is the current Keystone pipeline to the tune of 21,000 gallons near Milner, North Dakota in that USA Today reported in 2011. Transporting oil by pipeline has been said to be safer and a better alternative to ships and trucks, but it obviously isn’t fool proof. To be fair, anyone using oil (everyone you see today) has some culpability in these spills as consumers of oil products.

Additionally, tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest processes known to create useable crude. The product being pumped is a sandy sludge that is hard to work with. The reason we are having the Alberta tar sands discussion now, instead of 30 years ago, is that it is such a difficult process, it has only been financially feasible the last few years as gas prices have gone up.

Strangely enough, a gigantic concern with this whole pipeline is that the entire project may not provide much to the U.S. consumer. A possible scenario is that the XL pipeline will go all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and be shipped to the highest bidder. At that point, we are putting up all the environmental risk and are not necessarily going to receive the product or reduce our gas prices.

The Keystone XL itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that Americans are occupied with looking for short-term energy solutions and jobs. Spending the same time and energy we are using to debate the pipeline to develop a strategy to educate a generation of students how to install solar, geo and wind systems would undoubtedly be a better investment. Instead of debating the best way to give a handout to ConocoPhillips, Valero and TransCanada for them to pump oil across our land to the highest bidding country, maybe we could have an honest conversation about long-term alternatives to oil grabbing. Of all the things we subsidize in this country, a network of cutting edge trade schools for renewable energy technicians with a low cost to students makes more sense to me. An army of energy savvy contractors and installers will make us stronger as a nation than any web of pipes to different corners of the world or any army stationed in oil rich countries in the Middle East.


American gas is never going back down to a dollar per gallon. That is the pipe dream. We won’t drill, pipe or strong-arm our way back to 1970s gas prices. Our current strategy is to argue about how to secure the rest of the puddles of oil in the world like dogs fighting over a bone. Meanwhile, countries with expensive gasoline prices are likely 10 to 20 years ahead of us in energy innovation. When gasoline is $8 a gallon, you have more incentive to build better cars, develop better transportation systems, educate a renewable energy workforce and reduce waste.

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is currently an outside salesperson at Shamrock Sales in Denver. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for the last 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Max is a LEED Green Associate and a BPI Building Analyst and is passionate about green technology. He can be reached at max.rohr@mac.com.

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