Digging up the Garden: Revisioning a Pipeline in the Public Interest

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By Sally Herrin

Back in the late 1990s, I was appointed by Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns to serve on his ethanol pricing task force. We spent a lot of time talking with oil industry folks, who often said they and their franchise operators didn’t much want to mess with ethanol blends. “We just don’t have the infrastructure,” was the message. “Too many problems. Can’t be done.” From testimony we heard, at that time the U.S. petroleum industry had not invested much in mid-continent refineries or pipelines since World War II, without doubt one reason why the industry could post the kind of profits, decade after decade, that built some of the largest family fortunes in North America, and securing as well —not incidentally—enormous political and economic power.

This fact—that much of the oil industry’s hardware here on the Great Plains is aging and increasingly inadequate to emerging energy development —helps explain the determination of Keystone XL pipeline promoters beyond the most obvious aim of exploiting northern fossil fuels. There’s no doubt in my mind that the project is designed in part as remediation, as connections and facilities are updated and new ones built to interface with new lines.

If you are willing to acknowledge the likelihood that even in the best case—accelerated development of renewable energies including wind, solar and biomass—fossil fuels are going to be a part of the energy mix for the next 50 to 400 years, then rebuilding and reinventing the infrastructure of this critical if problematic industry is not all bad. We can’t have it both ways, after all. Either we all swear off petroleum this minute, or we acknowledge that it is in the public interest, at a minimum, to maintain oil industry infrastructure. Otherwise, we’re protecting our precious ideals while deteriorating pipes and inefficient refineries leak all that valuable carbon-based Shag Nasty into everybody’s water tables. Ideals alone make very thin comfort, in my experience.

Don’t get me wrong—I am no fan of the Keystone project, no more than of so-called “frakking.” The drawbacks—in large part enormous risk to the waters of the Great Plains—are not in my opinion offset by a modest uptick during construction for local economies along the pipeline route or by fees to landholders, which frankly amount to chump change in light of the immense profits oil corporations and others stand to reap for decades. State Department findings do not support projections for significant long-term employment gains in most counties along proposed XL routes.

Many of my very good friends have testified to state and federal committees against Keystone XL. Some of them have published, or are about to, very thoughtful writing on this matter, notably Nebraska-born writer Julie Myers and Nebraska farm leaders Jim Knopik, Keith Dittrich and John Hansen, all fellow members of the mighty Nebraska Farmers Union (celebrating our centennial in 2013). As for me, I have been writing about the urgency of renewable energy development since 1996, as Nebraska readers know.

As I write today, the fate of Keystone XL rests with President Obama, and some of my friends feel hopeful that he will just say no. I have my doubts. I hope I am wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But in case I am not, and this pipeline in some form goes forward, I find myself intrigued by an idea for transforming Keystone XL in the public interest.

Here’s my point: if you are going to dig up the garden to plant beans, hadn’t you just as well plant corn and squash too?

If we are going to dig a great trench through the heart of the heart of our country for tar sands from Canada to be refined and exported via the Gulf of Mexico, could we not use that same right-of-way for buried energy and communications cable? Such an under- taking might become a great national project, analogous in our time to the monumental U.S. interstate highway system created after World War II. Few today could call that project anything but a raging success, even those who like to pit business against government and to tell the Big Lie—that government cannot be made to work.

Emerging science is catapulting our human capacity to build wisely today for sustainable tomorrows, and buried cable is a no-brainer, especially for energy but for communications as well. Not every message must be bounced off a satellite. Right-thinking planners worldwide cannot all be wrong, and few want to hang wire out on poles anymore. While calls for improving energy transmission across U.S. time zones are common and growing louder, developing a north-south energy corridor mid-continent would create serious long-term economic and social development on regional, national and even international levels. Done right, such a project could be a benison, a blessing instead of a blight upon us here on the vast and beautiful Great Plains and beyond.

The truth is, fly-over real estate is a rising star, as oceans rise even faster. As subways flood and boardwalks collapse, the Great Plains could very well become a mecca for highly mobile professionals who can live where they like, work from home or find ways commuting makes sense. Such people attract and create new economic activity and could help reverse out-migration from the central states. Such people would certainly be attracted to areas served by dependable, affordable power and communications systems, and many would find work in those industries. Beyond hardcore coastal addicts who must be near the sea, who wouldn’t want to live where air is clean and the sun shines even on snow, where children still have childhoods?

Me, I’ve always wanted to live in a golden age, and if there is to be one, distributed renewable energy generation will be its engine. A revisioned energy and communications pipeline might become indeed a lifeline for the Great Plains over the century to come. Like my man MLK, I believe I can look across the river of time, and though I won’t get there, I can see in emerging science that other shore.

And this revisioning of the scope of the Keystone XL project could put one Big Lie in its place. Government and the oil industry might undertake this project together, with shared goals in the public as well as private interest. When I raise this idea, some offer objections—“It’s a done deal,” and “The leases have been signed and can’t be renegotiated” and “It’s too late.” To which I reply, “Pish! And also Tosh! Go on with your Bad Self, and get thee behind me!”

Contracts can be and are renegotiated every day. It’s never too late to think better, and it’s not over ’til it’s over. Until the ditch is dug—no harm, no foul—the Fat Lady has not yet begun to sing.

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