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Rethinking the Keystone


“Are we going to be bullied or will we smack pig bottoms, so to speak?”

In architecture, the keystone is that wedge-shaped piece of an arch that locks the two curving sides together. I wonder if someone in the TransCanada Corporation was thinking about that when the Keystone Pipeline was named. Was he or she trying to evoke a criticial element of construction–the pipeline–that would bind our two countries together forever? If so, the keystone is a very ancient design, and one wonders if we should be thinking of something new.

The Keystone XL controversy will be inflamed again by speculation over the $5 gas prices being predicted due to hostilities between Israel and Iran. The United States is currently a net exporter of oil, so it’s not as though scarcity is driving the price upward. The rise is a combination of two things, the possibility of scarcity on the one hand and, on the other, speculative investment in oil at current prices in anticipation of scarcity. Fear and greed doing their number again.

Over and over again we are being shown the danger of our involvement in the Middle East, the very thing, according to historian Will Durant, that caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. The advocates of the construction of the Keyxtone XL Pipeline will claim that it will spare us oil price victimization by giving us unlimited access to oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. After all, we have always felt an affinity with Canadians, who are probably more like Americans than any other people on earth. And we have common interests, right? Well, our oil and gas corporations certainly do.

This is a very complicated subject, and getting to the bottom of it is way beyond the resources of a regular old person like me. However, there are things about this deal that make me uneasy in ways journalists aren’t addressing. For one thing, I didn’t realize that TransCanada already has about 200,000 miles of pipeline in the United States. Well, that’s OK. We’re good friends, right?

And the Keystone XL that is so hotly debated is actually two lengths of pipeline that would go right through the middle of the country. One part, the one that has created the greatest controversy, would go from Alberta through Montana, South Dakota, and on into Nebraska to Steele City. The other part would start in Cushing, Oklahoma, and travel down to terminals accessible to Port Arthur refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. By connecting with existing Keystone pipelines, there would be one continuous flow, picking up American crude at certain junctures.

The only thing is that, when the Keystone XL approval got mired down in politics, our good friends the Canadians organized a diplomatic mission to China, conveying the veiled threat that if we don’t want their tar sands oil, they know another country that does.The mind goes back to that moment whenever that the Canadians first got permission to construct pipelines in the U.S. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Who can you trust these days and for how long?

Tar sands oil is especially dirty, and the environmentalists are protesting in behalf of air quality worldwide, our land and wildlife that might be destroyed by a spill, and the indigenous peoples in Canada who will be most endangered by drilling. TransCanada is basically responding by saying, “Trust us. We will impose every conceivable safety measure, and everything will be just fine.” Of course, the American oil corporations that have invested in Canada’s tar sands are saying the same thing, and every corporation that would profit from materials and construction focuses mostly on the boost to the economy, including job creation.

Nevertheless, a pipeline running right through the middle of the country that belongs to a foreign corporation makes me a little uneasy. They could always sell, right? Like to a foreign corporation or to China, right? We have learned the hard way that governments, corporations, and our own people will occasionally do almost anything for money. And accidents happen, even when every conceivable regulation and safety measure is afoot. Or at least they have in the past.

I think of this whole deal in a very simple way that I can understand. It’s like this. You own a very beautiful, very large farm, and far north on a gentle rise is a dairy farm. Way down south of you is a sewage treatment facility that handles all the waste from a large town where you go to get groceries once a week. You have a septic system that works perfectly fine, but the dairy farm has a huge problem with the waste from a thousand or so cows. The dairy farm approaches you with a plan: They would like to construct a sewage line from their middens through your property and on down south to the sewage treatment facility. They know you have some teenage boys, and they will give them jobs on the construction project and pay them quite well. They’re only temporary jobs, but it will get the boys out of your hair for a while. The treatment facility and the town are very excited about this possibility, because it will save them both the cost of transporting the waste by truck. You know how those diesel trucks foul the air. And by the way, they will hook up your sewage to the line, too.

You’re taking your time about this idea, trying to figure out all the angles, when you get word that the dairy farmer has been talking to a pig farmer. He doesn’t mind that you and everybody else in the county have gotten wind, pardon the pun, of the idea that he might sell out to the pig farmer if you won’t work with him. The community all around is horrified by the possibility and going toxic with anxiety. The pressure builds on you to commit. But then you start thinking: Even if I commit, how long will this arrangement last? How can I be sure that there will never be pigs in my future? And what happens if the line breaks and my soil and the aquifer beneath are contaminated forevermore?

You may have another idea. You grow landscaping plants for market, and you use composting worms to work garden waste and manure from your own livestock and turn it into “black gold,” the best soil amendment known to man. Why can’t the farmer process his manure with worms and create a kind of a commercial bounty that would make the entire earth more green and lush? Perhaps you can organize all your fellow organic farmers to forestall this sewage line, but you know that the effort will be greeted by overhwhelming hostility. There is no idea so threatened as one whose time should already have come.

So here we are. It seems to me that if we choose the Keystone XL Pipeline, it is a doorway to nowhere. Beyond the current threshold, the only kind of security we can hope for is through clean energy innovation. This will take nerve, not only to defy the corporations so heavily invested in the past but also to alienate our neighbors to the north. Oh, well. I guess we just have to decide whether we’re going to lead or whether we’re going to follow, whether we will be bullied or whether we will smack pig bottoms, so to speak. But, of course, first we have to decide who “we” are and get busy. Very, very busy designing a new kind of door to a cleaner, brighter future.

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