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Energy Beggars No More, We Can Be Choosy

Infrastructure Memo Pad Top News

Energy Beggars No More, We Can Be Choosy


The Obama administration has finally passed judgment on the Keystone XL pipeline, and it’s a thumbs-down. The environmental arguments against it have always been impeccable. But it took America’s turn toward energy independence to cut down the economic case for it.

Americans still need oil, but we can choose to reject the dirtiest kind. A 1,179-mile pipeline was to carry crude from the tar sands in Alberta to a pumping station in Nebraska, with a separate expansion to the Gulf Coast. Tar sands oil generates 17 percent more planet-warming gases than conventional oil.

In the days of heavy reliance on Mideast oil, opposing any dependable new source of oil, above all from friendly Canada, posed political risk. But boy, have things changed. New technologies have enabled us to get at large stores of domestic oil and gas. And we’re developing ways to harvest clean energy.

Texas has so much wind power now that some utilities are giving away electricity at night. Why on earth should the U.S. be enabling the transport of tar sands gook from the bottom of the environmental oil barrel?

With the price of oil way down and little public wailing about prices at the pump, Obama was able to say “no” to the pipeline without facing serious political blowback.

Not even from Canada, where most politicians felt duty-bound to back the pipeline. That included the new prime minister, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. Though Trudeau’s heart wasn’t much in it, Obama’s decision to nix the project took some heat off him.

There’s no little irony in the fact that the project was ultimately stopped by people who generally don’t care about global warming. We are speaking of Nebraskans.

A major oil spill would have threatened the massive underground Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to Nebraska’s ecologically fragile Sandhills and well beyond. The aquifer is what makes this region agriculturally rich, as opposed to the Great American Desert early travelers once thought it was.

A pipe moving 830,000 barrels of oil a day would be no small concern. And the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico did not inspire confidence in the promoters’ safety claims.

Holdout landowners not interested in letting TransCanada build a pipeline on their properties provided another source of local opposition. The idea that a foreign company could use eminent domain to take their land did not go over well at all.

The Nebraska resistance created delay, giving technology time to deliver energy independence. All that’s left is the jobs argument. And it takes a certain amount of guts to defend a massively controversial project on the basis of making some temporary construction jobs and a measly 35 permanent ones.

Many of the project’s backers have argued that pipeline or no, Canada will still extract and sell the environmentally damaging tar sands oil, so why stand in the way? Well, with the price of oil so low and the cost of moving it higher by rail than by pipeline, it’s become increasingly likely that the oil will stay in the ground — where it belongs.

Obama will be taking his pipeline decision with him to Paris next month. There he will prod a summit of foreign leaders to get super-serious about confronting the enormous security and environmental implications of climate change.

“Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership,” Obama said with considerable understatement.

Fortunately, not approving it had become no big deal in 2015. Nowadays, we Americans can afford to be choosier about how we power our lives. That’s a wonderful position to be in.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2015 CREATORS.COM

Pipes for Transcanada Corp’s planned Keystone XL oil pipeline are pictured in Gascoyne, North Dakota in this November 14, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/Files

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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  1. Dominick Vila November 10, 2015

    Even if we ignore the obtuse position taken by the anti-science advocates and accept the fact that the effects of global warming, such as melting polar caps, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, an increase in storms in areas that seldom saw tropical storms, widespread devastation in areas that were once fertile grounds, increased pollution, a rapidly disappearing ozone layer, is all a myth, according to oil company “scientists”, the most perplexing part of their argument is their willingness to impact private enterprise by refusing to invest in infrastructure, in alternative energy sources, and in new technologies. Instead of focusing on new job creation and profitable enterprise, and competing with Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, and other developed nations, we are deliberately allowing them to take the lead in what is likely to be the next industrial boom sector…and we are doing it to save neanderthal capitalism!

  2. Jerry Schull November 10, 2015

    Or we can refine it in the middle of the USA where the Keystone XL stops. This will keep the cost of gasoline down for decades.

    1. Paul Bass November 10, 2015

      There isn’t the refining capacity in the middle of the USA. That is why they wanted to ship it to Houston where the refineries are. It takes a special refinery process to handle this crude, and those refineries are located in Houston, NOT Oklahoma.

      1. Jerry Schull November 10, 2015

        That has been my point all along. When oil flows freely, the refineries are the choke point. They manipulate refinery capacity to keep price up. Have been doing this for decades. We need a refinery in the middle of the USA, not just in the weather dependent and export possible gulf coast.

        1. Paul Bass November 10, 2015

          The cost of a heavy oil/tar sands refinery is currently estimated to be at LEAST $10,000,000,000.00 and 2 to 3 years to build. No one wants to put in that much money, especially at today’s low oil prices.
          The Economics just don’t work for a refinery, that is exactly why Canada wants to ship the raw crude, they can’t justify the expense of a refinery.

          1. Jerry Schull November 10, 2015

            Good point..

      2. bobnstuff November 10, 2015

        The mid-west has a lot of refineries. The reason for going to the gulf is the port.

        1. Paul Bass November 10, 2015

          No Bob, those refineries cannot handle the heavy crude/tar sands oil from Canada. Only the refineries in Houston can handle that stuff, it is very difficult to refine. Those oils lead to the $10 Billion estimated cost. (and those estimates are always low) of a refinery to distill this dirty stuff.

          1. bobnstuff November 10, 2015

            A lot of the Tar Sand Oil is going to Illinois right now, that’s where the present Keystone Pipeline goes. There are refineries all over the mid-west that can do anything the gulf coast ones can do.

            Right now 70% of this stuff is being refined in the mid-west. Sending it to the Gulf is to make it easier to ship to China.

    2. johninPCFL November 10, 2015

      The companies that are extracting the tar-sands oil have already sold it on futures contracts. The oil is not available for use here, nor for refining here, it is already sold to Chinese buyers.

      1. oldtack November 10, 2015

        Good to see this reply. The majority of our people believed that Canadian Crude would be piped through our widespread aquifers to the Coast then be refined for US usage. NO Way. This oil is already consigned for shipment to China. Canada didn’t send this to their own west coast because of widespread opposition from those that live in that area.

      2. Paul Bass November 10, 2015

        Futures work a little different than that. Futures contracts promise ANY oil that fits the contract, not exactly one oil or another. However, currently the Chinese ARE paying the highest prices, so they are getting the contracts. We don’t exactly know they will get these oil sands, we know they will get SOME oil. First in line…

        1. johninPCFL November 10, 2015

          The point there is that the oil contracts have been sold, so delivery is necessary, and the type of oil is specified in the contract (light-sweet, brent, etc. – otherwise everybody would partially refine their oil and ship bunker-C.)
          The Canadian company that sold the contracts can buy oil on the world market (which is cheaper right now than producing tar-sands oil) and deliver on their contracts, or they can rail-ship what they produce from their own field, but they have to deliver something. The pipeline just provides them an easy portal to a shipping port to move product they’ve already sold from their own field.

          1. Paul Bass November 10, 2015

            Exactly! i agree.

  3. Paul Bass November 10, 2015

    Fracking on private lands all over America has made this “dirty” oil less economically viable.

    In other words, we can get “cleaner” oil and natural gas from our own wells here in America, so why spend the money and political “costs” of this pipeline, when we have reserves as easily gotten here in America.

  4. yabbed November 10, 2015

    We should thank President Obama for unshackling us from Saudi Arabia. We don’t need their oil, thanks to President Obama’s dedication to making America independent. We have sufficient oil and natural gas of our own now. The Canadian pipeline was a disaster waiting to befall our breadbasket and water supply. You know there is serious danger to that oil when Canadians won’t allow the pipeline to be built across their own country.

  5. FireBaron November 10, 2015

    Just as a reminder, here. Most Canadian provinces said no to this project as being too unsafe in its design. Also, this oil was already earmarked for export to Asia, not for US use.

    1. Daniel Jones November 10, 2015

      Meaning we get to refine the gunk then not even use it.

  6. Insinnergy November 10, 2015

    Coal and Oil are done as the prime energy sources of the future. The special interests still need to be fought, as they’ve accumulated massive amounts of money and influence, but I suspect the battle is half over.

    It’s not like they were ever ethical or moral to start with. Consider OPEC. The definition of a price fixing cartel. Illegal in most other industries… but oil gets a pass.

    While they have supplied products that people need, these industries have also illegally screwed everyone they’ve been in contact with out of as much money as they possibly can manage, and suppressed any threats to their monopoly, from scientific to political for decades.

    They’ll always be around… we will still need some oil and coal for manufacturing, but cheer their removal from the top of the heap… it’s about time.

    1. jtxl November 10, 2015

      I have a lot of hope when Hillary is elected. She did the research( when Bill Clinton was president) to find out just what the costs are to the oil companies. They found that even with rebuilding and updating all the refineries, the cost of drilling and exploration and even the multi million dollar bonus checks the execs pay themselves, it only costs .35 per gal to get from a thought to in your car. President Clinton limited them to $1 per gallon and gave them the corporate welfare for exploration. He announced that the numbers were in and could not be disputed so the Attorney General had already drawn up the warrants and they were going to round up the oil execs and the charges would be racketeering, price fixing and anti trust violations. Either they were to self regulate or the government would step in and do it. Gas had been steadily rising in price and the next day it dropped to $1. Last round of elections Hillary said she was going to cap gas prices at $2 per gallon and take away the corporate welfare. The republicans have worked very hard to fool people into accepting that high prices are just how the world works when it actually falls under the reality that because we do not have a mass transit system like Europe where the train goes to even the smallest of towns, cars here are a necessity so gas falls under essential services which by law can only make a fair profit and can not be driven by what the market will bear. This law was used to regulate the electric company where I live for more than the last 20yrs. They separate the fuel charge on the bill and if they collected more than a fair price, they have to refund the difference back to the customers. I don’t even 1 year has gone by that I didn’t get refunds. I know the laws are still in place because they are still regulated. Still we can’t stop fighting for renewable sources because the republicans have been fighting it hard like in arizona where people can no longer sell their extra electricity back to the electric company and have to pay a monthly fee to the electric companies which can be even more than their old electric company. How stupid can those people be to keep electing republicans?

  7. dtgraham November 10, 2015

    A number of comments have been made here about the oil sands pipelines not even being built within Canada. That’s true. Northern Gateway to the BC coast is done and the energy east pipeline is facing serious obstacles, to the point where the Green Party leader has called it dead. Too much provincial opposition in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and a poor safety review from the National Energy Board.

    They found that the Energy East oil sands pipeline would have a 15% chance of a full bore rupture per year. A catastrophic rupture could produce the largest oil spill in Canadian history in a worst case scenario. Up to 30 million litres of diluted bitumen. A leak of up to 2.6 million litres per day could also go undetected by TransCanada.

    That no oil sands pipelines are getting approved and being built within Canada should tell you something. At the very least, they might have thought of spending extra money to route the Keystone around the Ogallala aquifer.

    1. jtxl November 10, 2015

      Rerouting was the original hold up from Democrats because this is a very big deal. The republicans used their propaganda to twist it into the false impression that it would bring jobs. Most of the jobs in Texas are already over because the southern portion of the pipeline is already built. Those jobs were temporary. The jobs at the refineries were few but most important is that they would all be contractor jobs that pay a fraction of what a worker would make working directly for the oil companies. That’s another problem that needs attention. The refineries workforce has been shrinking for decades and the majority of workers in a refinery are contract labor so if there is an accident, the refinery can not be sued. The injured worker can sue the contractor they work for but not for much because obviously there just isn’t much there. rick perry made millions on the pipeline by seizing land under eminent domain and then being paid as an agent to sell the land to developers. He rerouted the pipeline through the mountains and prime land that families had live for several generations. The land owners went to court to fight it because it would cost so much more to go through their land and it was very much out of the way for the pipeline. The landowners lost obviously because perry had appointed over 2500 judges who always voted his way. As soon as the state seized the land and paid a fraction of what the land was worth, surprise, perry had the lines re-drawn to the original route and as governor somehow perry got millions to set up the sale of the land to private developers. The land owners again went to court to be able to buy the land back for the price they were paid and surprise again….the land owners lost.

      1. dtgraham November 11, 2015

        That’s almost unbelievable. Wow.


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