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Keystone Pipeline: A Huge Step Backwards for Jobs and for the Clean Economic Future

J. Mijin Cha

Last week, the Department of State held its final public hearing on whether a Keystone XL pipeline should be built to bring crude oil from the Alberta, Canada tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The pipeline would be an extension of an existing pipeline and would be 1,700 miles long and run through six states. It would also support an environmentally destructive extractive industry that furthers the addiction to fossil fuels and detracts from a clean economic future.

Tar sand mining is very bad news. Due to the energy intensive nature of the process, the emissions footprint of tar sand mining is three times that of typical oil wells. The strip mining nature of the process requires substantial amounts of water and leaves behind lakes of waste. Tar sands extraction and processing require several barrels of water for each barrel of oil and roughly two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel of oil. When analyzing proposed projects in the U.S, an Environmental Impact Statement produced by the Bureau of Land Management stated that development of a commercial tar sands industry in the U.S. would have, “significant social and economic impacts on local communities,” particularly for the relatively arid western United States due to the large amount of water required for tar sands processing.

TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline proposal, claims that the project will create 15,000 jobs with a $7 billion project budget. These claims have successfully worked to pit people looking for jobs against environmental protection. However, TransCanada’s projects are not only inflated, they are flat out wrong. A recent report by Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute (GLI) looked closely at the reports and proposals submitted by TransCanada and found that the actual project cost will only be between $3 and $4 billion and that, at best, the project will create fewer than 5,000 temporary construction jobs. 

The report cites TransCanada’s own proposal to the National Energy Board as stating, “Construction is short-term, workers’ families are not expected to move into the area and area medical facilities are adequate to deal with any on-the-job injuries.” As for other job creation, GLI’s Report details how much of the pipe construction is likely to be manufactured in India and South Korea, where some pipe for the project has already been manufactured and imported and how local workers hired for the project could be fewer than 100.

And, contrary to the circus surrounding Solyndra, there has been a near media blackout on both the dangers of the project and on emails that show an uncomfortably cozy relationship between a TransCanada lobbyist and an employee at the State Department. The emails show the State Department official providing subtle coaching and cheerleading to the TransCanada lobbyist on how to message and present the project and inside information on Secretary Clinton’s meetings. Yet, all the major news outlets have ignored this story.

Environmental damage from the pipeline is a certainty. Earlier this year, an existing portion of the pipeline spilled 20,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota. The proposed project runs by the Oglalla Aquifer, which provides drinking water to 2 million people and irrigation water to over a quarter of irrigated land in the United States. What happens if the pipeline spills into the aquifer?

Pipeline defenders say there are no alternatives to these risks. They are wrong. While the United States can't break its oil addiction over night, we can get that oil from cleaner and safer sources even as we work to break the addiction. In the last two years, Germany installed enough solar panels to provide energy to 2 million American homes. Over 80 percent of the PV installed in Germany is on rooftops and built to a local scale. This is possible here. To take just one example, if 10 percent of right of way on the side of roads was used to install solar PV, close to 100 percent of the electricity consumption in the country could be produced. Making the U.S. a solar nation could create nearly 10 million jobs and add as much as $450 billion to the economy.

And, it’s not just solar. One megawatt of wind energy is enough to power 250 homes. In 2009, over 10,000 megawatts of wind energy were installed and 85,000 people were employed in the wind industry. There is also great potential in hydropower, geothermal, biomass, and off-shore wind. If we invested in these industries at the same level as environmentally destructive ones, we would guarantee a clean economic future for generations to come.