The proposed Keystone pipeline has the potential to be the largest environmental disaster in the history of North America and for none of the reasons that so far have been publicly debated.
Perhaps, as an historian, I don’t pay enough attention to what is going on around me, but the public outcry over Keystone caught me by surprise last year. I vaguely remembered hearing about the proposal and was not overly concerned, given the absurdity of what was proposed.
Why on earth would anyone want to run a pipeline all the way from Alberta to Texas merely to refine oil? The magnitude of the project and its cost would surely dwarf an expansion of current refining capacity and laying down an extra pipe through existing corridors to transport hubs already in operation. While oil was going up in price, it was not that high and alternate energy sources seemed to be making some headway against demand.
I also did not suspect that environmental considerations would stop the project. The environmental track record of the Canadian and American governments when it comes to oil has neither been wise nor green of late, as in Canada the Mackenzie Valley pipeline is back on the table and the Gulf coast still cleans up the remains of its latest (and not the last) spill from offshore oil drilling.
So, while I followed the arguments and impact assessments with interest, it was the commentary on potential contamination of the Oglala Aquifer from any pipeline leak or spill that caught my attention. Then the real reason for the Keystone project hit me: the whole thing has little or nothing to do with oil from the Alberta tar sands.
Keystone XL is all about water.