The Keystone Pipeline: Is It Worth It?

Lack of Qualified Workers, Environmental Issues Top Concerns For Project

The XL Pipeline has become an intense issue in which facts tend to be swamped by political leanings and financial interests. Everyone can recognize that in a perfect environmental world there would be no pipelines; it is hard to argue that they improve nature. But they are a necessary environmental evil to facilitate a modern economy. As always, it is a question of degree: how bad is this particular pipeline and how useful is its construction to the health of the U.S. economy?

The bad news about the diluted bitumen (or dilbit) that would come from the Canadian Tar Sands to fill the pipeline is that it is not crude oil. It is more toxic than crude oil, far heavier, and more expensive to clean up. We have good data on this because of a major leak in 2010 into the Kalamazoo River from a pipeline carrying dilbit.

The first problem came from the benzene, a light petrochemical that is added to the dilbit, without which the dilbit is too thick to actually move along a pipeline. After the leak of over a million gallons, which ran for 17 hours before pumping finally stopped, the benzene evaporated into a brown poisonous gas, necessitating the immediate evacuation of all neighboring houses.

The second problem was that after the loss of its benzene the diluted bitumen became just plain bitumen – close to the tarry stuff that goes on roads – and sank to the river bottom, where it bounced slowly along, creating lasting damage for scores of miles. The cost so far has reached an estimated $1,000 a gallon.

More people are needed to work in these areas and would help improve job creation. If there were armies of unemployed welders and other construction workers sitting around, one could easily imagine that almost every job needed would draw from the unemployment pool and would be true job creation. After all, the demand for welders is surprisingly high.

"[It is] so high that you can take every citizen in the region of Lake Charles between the ages of 5 and 85 and teach them all how to weld and you’re not going to have enough welders," a recent Bloomberg article states.

The Gulf area shortages of welders, fabricators, pipe fitters, and oil and gas workers are pushing up wages so fast that expansion projects are running well over budget already and have been forced to cancel.

It is clear that the XL Pipeline will not "create" jobs. Every one of its potential workers, almost all of whom already travel widely for jobs, could get a job several times over if given an hour on the telephone.

Will we use them to extend chemical plants to capitalize on the incredible U.S. advantage, extend our fracking of U.S. sweet crude, transport Canadian diluted bitumen, the most dangerous and toxic of all fuels, in order to increase the price for a handful of Canadian Tar Sand producers? Even ignoring the severe environmental risks, it should be an easy decision on economic grounds alone.