Keystone Pipeline Shut Down

The Department of Transportation recently issued an order that shuts down the 1,300 mile Keystone oil pipeline from Canada. TransCanada, the company that operates the pipeline, had already temporarily halted pumping after two recent leaks. A total of eleven leaks have occurred since the pipeline began operations a year ago in June 2010. However, the company had submitted a plan to resume pumping when this federal order was issued. The company is asked to follow a number of steps to ensure safety before pumping may resume.

The shutdown is of note given the controversy over TransCanada’s plans to build another pipeline, the Keystone XL, which would traverse parts of the Sandhills region in Nebraska, crossing over the massive underground Ogallala aquifer. Proponents of the pipeline have touted potential job creation and property tax gains for Nebraska, as well as the benefits of increasing access to oil from a friendly neighboring nation. I agree that all of these would be goods worth taking seriously, and I don’t oppose the concept of a pipeline in general.

However, I believe that two major concerns greatly outweigh the potential benefits at this time. Most important is safety. TransCanada has a poor track record so far with the Keystone pipeline. Why should we trust that the new pipe, which will be larger, thinner, and carrying a more corrosive mixture of contents, will be even safer than the one they already have difficulty operating properly? Prudence demands skepticism here, and recommends that Nebraska’s Legislature and the U.S. State Department take action to address these foreseeable risks. I would say the question is not whether the pipe would leak, but when, and how bad the effects would be.

I don’t have enough knowledge of groundwater or oil contamination issues to predict how a spill would affect Nebraska’s land and water. Perhaps alarmists exaggerate while apologists ignore, and I don’t know how to sort out the truth from their positions. However, I know it’s a serious enough issue that the State Department should be cautious about moving forward, taking sufficient time to investigate all of the scientific claims. Why does the pipeline have to traverse seemingly vulnerable regions, I wonder? Have other routes even received consideration, or been compared for relative risks?

Recent attempts by some in Congress to push the State Dept. towards an earlier deadline for an approval decision, when the deadline is already approaching soon at the end of 2011, seem entirely foolish. I don’t know what good reasons could motivate such haste, even if one fully supported the pipeline plan, so this raises suspicion about why some want to rush it through. How would these representatives or their constituents benefit from a few months difference, one wonders? Though most deadline supporters are Republicans, I don’t think this is a partisan issue for Nebraskans. Even our Republican Senator, Mike Johanns, joins the Democratic Senator Ben Nelson in caution about rushing the deadline.

In addition, conservatives and many moderates–or anyone who disagrees with eminent domain decisions like the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London disaster–have a second reason to oppose the current pipeline plans. Private property owners are being compelled to sacrifice their own rights for the sake of economic benefits to a foreign company. The idea that a foreign entity like this could use someone’s land under these circumstances without their consent is a bit shocking. I know that property owners in this state have been pressured aggressively for consent and are receiving inadequate legal and financial protections. Senators Ken Haar and Annette Dubas in the Nebraska Legislature, among others, have pushed efforts to protect landowners and Nebraskans’ general interests here, but the full Legislature only agreed to a minimal bill.

Even if the pipeline were perfectly safe, this violation of property rights seems unjust. Knowing the safety hazards as we do, however, I find it unconscionable. Nebraska always seems willing to accept the short end of the stick in these deals. Pennywise and pound foolish, our representatives so often jump at short term gains without carefully considering long-term consequences. I can only hope that federal officials at the State Dept. or elsewhere are wise enough to think this thing through before signing away Nebraska’s future to TransCanada, which already has demonstrated it’s lack of trustworthiness.

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