The intensifying political fight over the Keystone pipeline has almost nothing to do with the merits or drawbacks of the Keystone pipeline.
Take the issue of jobs. Backers of the project claim it will produce tens of thousands of jobs, while outside experts say those estimates are vastly inflated. The high-end best guess seems to be that construction of the pipeline will produce about the same number and type of temporary jobs as construction of the two stadiums now underway in metro Atlanta, which combined will account for some 9,000 jobs of short duration. (For example, you’ve got people building concrete forms for a couple of months, other people pouring concrete for a month or two, other people installing plumbing for a month or two, etc.)
In a national context, with some 300,000 long-term jobs being created a month, the notion that the Keystone pipeline is a major jobs producer is inane. It simply is not so.
In fact, much of the pipeline has already been built. As the map above demonstrates, the unbuilt portion still at issue stretches only from the Canadian border south to the Kansas-Nebraska border — existing pipeline capacity then would take the liquid south to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined and some would be shipped out to overseas markets.
Here’s the bottom line: Once the entire pipeline is built, running it will require roughly 35 full-time employees. And that’s not in dispute.
The same is true, although to a lesser degree, about the environmental drawbacks of the proposal. Nebraskans are understandably nervous about the potential for leakage into the Ogallala Aquifer that their entire agricultural economy relies upon for irrigation — remember, the pipeline is being proposed in the first place because many Canadians balk at letting it run through their own lands. Nebraska farmers are still fighting that issue out in state courts, where property owners have contested the use of eminent domain to force them to allow the pipeline to cross their land.
However, the larger question is the pipeline’s impact on development of the oil-tar sands in Alberta, a potential energy source that environmentalists warn would be a particularly nasty contributor of greenhouse gases. The truth is, development of the tar sands depends far more heavily on the international price of oil than it does on the construction of any particular pipeline. If the price is high enough, they’ll find some means to get the oil to refineries and then to market. If it isn’t high enough, the oil will sit there.
And right now, it isn’t high enough. Oil production experts say that the break-even point for tar-sand production is somewhere in the neighborhood of $65 a barrel; as of yesterday, it had fallen beneath $50 a barrel.
In short, the fight accelerating in Congress this week over the Keystone pipeline isn’t a fight over an issue of major substance. The stakes have been exaggerated significantly for purposes of theater. It is a fight over power — who has it, and who doesn’t — within the tight little universe of Washington, D.C.