BioCycle February 2015
The Keystone pipeline has always been entirely unnecessary and counterproductive to our long-term energy needs, and its benefits have always been vastly overstated. Its primary purpose is to accelerate the extraction of crude oil by melting tar out of sand, a process that strikes many of us as absurd. It is one of the many extreme methods for extracting oil that have emerged in the past decade, along with drilling in ever deeper seas, and drilling in an Arctic ocean made newly accessible by global warming. It is frustrating to watch as billions of dollars and some of our best scientific minds are consumed with the task of squeezing the planet for every possible additional year of the crude oil era.
In spite of all this, the pipeline is absolutely, inevitably, going to end up being built and green groups missed a chance to swap something meaningful for it while Democrats had majority control of the Senate. The conclusion of the process, likely to take place at some point in the new fully Republican controlled Congress, might yield some green policy concessions, but nothing like what Democrats may have gotten last term.
There are several reasons why construction of the pipeline is and always was inevitable.
First, tar sands extraction will continue regardless, although I stress that is a fatalist and not a triumphant statement. If there was any way to stop this activity, I would be the first to champion such a policy. However, blocking the Keystone pipeline will not stop this insane process; it will just divert the exports to other pipelines and more dangerous rail cars.
Second, there has always been a messaging dilemma for the opposition, since the eye-catching arguments against Keystone are not the truly strong ones. This is most clearly demonstrated by the potential dangers it poses, which seem to be the best way to get attention but fall flat. There are many great reasons to oppose the pipeline, and its safety and environmental risks are certainly among them, but they are not very strong arguments. Pipelines have inherent risks, and the nature of this one makes it slightly more risky, but we take greater or equal risks in our economy and infrastructure all the time. It’s a pipeline; it’s not an experimental fusion reactor on top of a giant popcorn machine. Pipelines are ubiquitous throughout our energy infrastructure, in spite of occasional accidents. The general public accepts this, and most support the pipeline. Overplaying this point has hurt the credibility of the opposition and made it look somewhat hysterical.
Third, although the economic benefit is overstated, it is spread broadly enough to create a strong coalition in Congress, which is the principal reason it is going to eventually get built. Defense procurement planners discovered long ago that the way to protect their programs was to spread the contracts over as many states and Congressional districts as possible. This process, known as “political engineering,” is extremely successful, the best current example of which is the F-35 fighter program. This is widely considered to be one of the worst weapons programs ever conceived, but it is spread across 90 Congressional districts and is therefore completely safe. Keystone probably doesn’t hit 90, but it hits a lot, including the states containing the companies who will do the work, and that was obvious from day one.
Politicizing Energy Infrastructure
There are consequences to biogas from the long, extreme opposition to the pipeline. First, as I said at the outset, greens could have pushed a compromise to include renewable energy policy with the approval. That opportunity is now mostly gone and we are going to get the pipeline eventually anyway. The second consequence, however, is much more damaging and long term.
The Keystone fight has set the stage for over-politicization of all future energy infrastructure discussions. By fighting a protracted multiyear war of attrition, both sides have created a dedicated corps of lobbyists skilled in this issue who will now look for their next gig. In fact, I wonder if fighting over the Keystone pipeline might have created more jobs than building it ever will. The scorched earth opposition might dampen enthusiasm for some future pipelines, or deter some altogether, but the fight will extend to all energy infrastructure proposals, including those needed by biogas and renewable energy.
The reason for this is the unholy alliance that comprises the Keystone opponents. By teaming up with landowners and other members of the NIMBY (“not-in-my-back-yard”) crowd, greens may have created an enemy to future infrastructure badly needed by all renewable energy, including biogas. In the long run, a rapidly growing biogas industry will need a healthy natural gas infrastructure. It is true that natural gas pipeline congestion will, in some places, help make onsite biogas more attractive in the short run, but overall the biogas industry is a small boat that rises with the tide of multisector conversion to methane gas energy. By creating an anti infrastructure coalition, the Keystone fight might harm the growth of renewables in the future.
The American Biogas Council has, to its credit, mostly stayed out of the Keystone fight. With any luck it will have more credibility when the time comes to advance the infrastructure priorities of the biogas industry.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development. His column for BioCycle, BioEnergy Outlook, first appeared in 2013.