Photo courtesy of National Geographic
A great new article on the development of the Keystone XL pipeline and the growing coalition of interests opposing the development and implementation of new oil infrastructure came out recently on National Geographic. Due to agricultural interests predominantly located in the state of Nebraska aligned with national environmental lobbies, the route of the pipeline shifted east to avoid parts of the Ogallala Reservoir supplying water to two million people across eight states. Up to this point, most of the controversy about the pipeline has been due to two major factors: the shipping of bitumen from Canadian oil sands (reported in a January New York Times article to be carcinogenic in addition to having a high carbon footprint) and the alignment of national environmental and regional farming interest groups and lobbyists requiring additional review and concessions from TransCanada as insurance against any type of accident degrading land or water resources necessary for farming.
What is interesting is the new place and source of opposition for the pipeline: eminent domain in the state of Oklahoma and determined activists willing to stop construction through protest, like a 72 year old elementary school teacher chaining herself by the neck to a giant excavator. Due to support in Texas and Oklahoma, pipeline construction advanced rapidly compared to delays in the northern sections of the pipelines. However, new grassroots coalitions are forming between the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance and Oklahoman farmers upset about lands seized for the pipeline’s development through eminent domain powers of government. Even though TransCanada claims less than 2% of the pipeline’s land is seized through eminent domain, a small group of Oklahoma farmers are challenging this in court, claiming the Canadian company is not working in the public good for the people of Oklahoma. President Obama gave his blessing to the pipeline in Cushing as part of the “pipeline crossroads of the world” while the northern sector crossing the Canadian border awaits his approval.
A final interesting development is a new geographical source of support for the pipeline: the booming oil shale field of North Dakota. Since the light, sweet crude requires refinement and North Dakota’s oil output exceeds current transportation networks, the pipeline is now being recast as being able to transport either Canadian or American oil.
As an important case study in the Presidency, interests, and federalism in the debate on American energy development, the Keystone XL pipeline has surprised me in the way it reframed a supposedly simple issue of interest groups at local and national levels aligning and bludgeoning it out through executive review and leverage over the President during the election cycle. Rather, new economic and geographic developments have now given Obama an opportunity to make another “pragmatic” compromise as a victory during stalemate over the budget in Congress occupies the national consciousness. It will be interesting if he either uses the Pipeline as a trade for key Republican House votes or as a counter to the Republican claim he is against big business and economic development.