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Pipeline Visions

The Keystone pipeline project will save America.  It will be a testament to our values of entrepreneurial virtue and economic prosperity … or so one hears from its proponents.  But the double mirror of history, while it allows us to look back in chagrin at our follies, also urges us – for the future’s sake – to look forward.  A paradox, to be sure, but then paradoxes speak to our sense that something needs to be carefully examined.

The pipeline is expected to seed the jobs that will lead us out of this post-recessionary period of (steadily receding) high unemployment.  Building it will, of course, employ a team of engineers whose advice will be heeded … up to a point – that point being where the construction cost over-runs become unsettling to an oil company’s governing board.   Technical decisions will leak into the board room with disastrous consequences because the pertinent analysis will no longer be about design, route and materials, but about cost vs. risk.

The workers – draftsmen, construction workers, and their suppliers, along with entrepreneurs who see an opportunity and spring into action to support all this activity in various ingenious ways – will create a temporary economic flurry.  Once the construction effort has subsided, though, maintenance crews of a far smaller number will find employment.  These are the ones who will see first-hand the consequences of the board room over-riding the engineering team.

And so the monstrous hollow snake will be built to stream oil from the ravaged Canadian landscape to the Gulf where it will be transported to its final destinations: ports of the world whose economies are even hungrier for carbon-based fuel than the US believes itself to be, as witnessed by their willingness to pay more for the product than we think we should have to pay.  Unfortunately, this oil won’t do much to lower the price of gas at the pump, not here anyway, unless one still believes in the trickle-down unicorn.

The short-cuts taken during construction, to speed completion and prevent further cost over-runs, will cause alarm in the board chairman’s office, not for the long-term damage of spilled crude to arable land and the aquifers that feed them, but for the difficulty in hiding it from the public in a land of media freedom.  Stock-holders will be furious.  Congressional hearings will ensue with much drama and righteous indignation.  Where were the regulators?  It will all be as redundant as the absurd expression “déjà-vu all over again.”

Such a predictable narrative: the rush to profit, the fulfillment of greed, the promise of broad-based benefit, and the chagrin of the faithful who trumpeted the power of new-found oil to bring down the price of gas at the pump and sold that line to a gullible public.  And this scenario doesn’t even address larger issues of the increasingly devastating effects of extracting, transporting and burning all that fossil fuel.

Of course, there is an alternate vision: one of an informed public that refuses to buy that line because it has looked into history’s double mirror and seen … the re-run.



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