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.
To understand why I would make such an extraordinary claim requires a look at canals and railways in 19th century Britain.
By the 1830s, after decades of war with the Napoleonic empire, internal waterways had been supplemented with canals to connect watersheds to an extraordinary extent. The design and size of these canals and the locks that overcame difference in elevation continued for several more decades, but then the railroad appeared.
In comparison to a publicly funded, already-constructed, easily maintained and efficient transportation system, the railroad was a noisy, dangerous and amusing novelty. In fact, even up to the 1880s, railway companies made the overwhelming majority of their income from passenger traffic, not freight.
The reasons why the railroad supplanted the canal were varied, but the best answer (given the passenger traffic) was that people just wanted to go fast – and preferred to live outside the grimy core of an industrial city.
The parallel to Keystone, however, is in their construction. Railroads, like pipelines, require a right-of-way. The fewer the twists and bends, the simpler and cheaper the construction, so railroads tended to be built as the crow flew. They did not meander like a waterway, so when the railroads were built, long-standing communities were by-passed and new ones built along the track to supply the fuel and water for the trains and provide access for passengers and freight.
It was a major social upheaval. Fortunes were made and lost depending on where the tracks went. Farms were bisected, livelihoods lost, investors went bankrupt after building only a few miles of their own railway. Without the public fascination with the train, building a railroad made no economic or social sense whatsoever.
Once the right-of-way was established, however, the upheaval subsided. The countryside reoriented itself around the railroad track and its stations. Life went on.
Because of the train, long-distance communication became not only useful but necessary. After the invention of the telegraph, conveniently, there were straight, established corridors between all the major centers in Britain. It was no trouble to put up poles for the telegraph wire alongside the railroad track.
There was neither enough money nor much romance in the telegraph. Had the railroads not already created these corridors, telegraphy would never have caught the imagination of the public nor investors as had the railroad. Long-distance telegraphy would likely have languished until some wireless version was invented.
Fast forward to 2012: Oil is King. Energy is something everyone understands, especially at the gas station when the pumps run dry or when the price soars. Alberta is Canada’s Texas, with huge reserves in the tar sands; Texas has oil refineries and shipping terminals on the Gulf of Mexico. Connect the dots and a pipeline from Alberta to Texas becomes a simple concept, able to be argued in practical economic and geographical terms.
If it weren’t for those environmentalists, of course, who object to the inevitability of oil spills, it would be a done deal.
But I remember the telegraph….
Once that right-of-way is fought through, against the objections of environmentalists and the local people through whose backyards it travels, the path is established from northern Alberta to northern Texas. Coincidentally, that’s the same route you would need to travel from Alaska or the Rockies, from the sparsely-populated and (at present) water-rich places of the North through the parched farmlands of the mid-West into the heart of Texas, where water is soon to be more precious than oil.
If you wonder what the future holds, especially over top of the rapidly-depleted Oglala Aquifer, look at the weather this summer.
Any government – Canadian or American — that proposed to build a pipeline for water from the North to Texas would not long survive. Nor would there be enough money to build it. Public support would come too late in the day for the massive construction required and there is no romance in tap water.
But if there already were a corridor, pumping stations, infrastructure, and everything that was needed was already in place, how easy would it be to put in another pipeline? Or, even more disturbing, what if Keystone was always intended for water?
What environmental objections could there possibly be to a spill from a water pipe, through the driest lands in North America?
To move water in such a way would shatter the ecosystems of the North in unimaginable ways – but then look at how we have harnessed and dried up mighty rivers further in the south of that same mountain system with little thought for the damage this does. After all, humans need the water and little else matters as much.
The environmental community needs to wake up to this new threat and demand assurances – in law — that something like this would never happen. I suspect government and industry on both sides of the border will respond with evasion, dismissal and ridicule – but nothing more substantive.
Whatever the debates about oil pipelines and energy, I still see that corridor from the Arctic to the Gulf. I watch the crops wither in the cornfields of Nebraska – and I remember the telegraph.
Peter Denton teaches ethics and sustainability at Red River College in Winnipeg, Canada. He is the author of Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World (2012)