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Despite rhetoric, climate change ranks low in public’s Keystone pipeline worries

Stuck in transit: The Keystone Pipeline proposal has become a symbol for politicians and environmentalists. Shannon Ramos/Flickr, CC BY-SA

A big battle over the Keystone XL pipeline is under way in Washington, DC. But, it’s mostly fought on terms that don’t matter to the American people.

Less than half of Americans (42%) are familiar with – or have even heard of – the Keystone XL pipeline according to the latest University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll, a biannual national survey of Americans’ consumer attitudes and perspectives on energy. Yet it remains a thorny political issue at the national level, as heated arguments seem to define the pipeline as a magic boundary between economic glory or devastating climate change.

While the environmental arguments hinge on the pipeline’s carbon risk, just 6% of those familiar with the pipeline who are opposed to its construction say climate change is a top concern. The public is far more likely to cite environmental degradation (36%), water contamination (14%) or hazardous chemicals (10%) as main reasons for opposing the project. Two thousand and seventy-eight people responded to the survey earlier this year.

The conversations happening on Capitol Hill, which center on climate change, do not reflect attitudes across the nation and mostly ignore the nuances of this now symbolic and partisan issue.

Safety, emissions

It’s true that like other pipelines, Keystone XL puts ecosystems at risk, including our water supplies. Threats of leakage into US water bodies like the Ogallala aquifer are serious, but it’s important to remember that there are already tens of thousands of miles of pipelines transporting oil and gas across the country, including over sensitive aquifers. This pipeline would not introduce a new problem, and therefore, doesn’t significantly increase our risk of water contamination.

University of Texas Austin, Author provided

A serious water vulnerability from a pipeline could occur at any time, so we should be focused on working to take strong precautions in order to keep sensitive aquifers safe from all of them, rather than oppose a specific, single project. This means raising standards for safety inspections and pipeline integrity – not just for Keystone XL, but all pipelines in the ground. A fee imposed on operators would help to fund regular inspections throughout the lifetime of this pipeline and others as well.

What about greenhouse gases? Oil sands production is more carbon-intensive than conventional petroleum production, so the Keystone XL pipeline will increase carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change.

While producing energy from these kinds of deposits is not desirable from an environmental standpoint, consider the alternative options. If Canada’s oil sands are produced and shipped overseas to China, the trip would require more energy input than transport by pipeline to Texas.

On top of that, refineries in Texas are cleaner and more efficient than in developing countries where air quality standards are not as stringent as the US. If the economic incentive to develop the oil sands is strong enough, the US market will provide a cleaner, less carbon-intensive alternative to locations around the world where the air quality rules aren’t as strict. Instead of halting the pipeline, approving it – together with a carbon tax – might be the grand bargain that we need to get these policies moving forward again.

Measuring trade-offs

But why support Keystone XL at all? Polling reveals that proponents for the construction of the pipeline are most likely to mention energy independence (26%), lower energy prices (25%) or job creation (25%) as reasons why they are in favor of the project. While it’s not clear that imports of Canadian oil would improve energy independence, we know that domestic energy consumers have national security and the economy on their minds.

Taking it to the streets to fight the Keystone pipeline proposal. tarsandsaction/flickr, CC BY

Increasing energy consumption from North American sources means that the US would become less dependent on petroleum from the Middle East and other, less stable countries like Nigeria and Venezuela.

This is good economically. When Canada, our largest trading partner, prospers, Canadians are likely to buy more goods from the US. They are also neighbors who share similar governing philosophies on democracy to our own – including attitudes on women’s rights and freedom. By contrast, petrodollars to the Middle East can create funding streams for activities that endanger America and its allies. That means the Keystone XL pipeline aligns well with our national security priorities.

It’s clear that political volleying on Capitol Hill and in the media has not reflected public attitudes regarding construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Rather than present the proposal in black and white terms, we should recognize how it represents a combination of trade-offs, pitting potential economic and security benefits against environmental concerns. Smart policies would prioritize safety while investing to mitigate the downside risks through regular inspections and carbon prices.

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