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Keystone Pipeline: The Controversy Continues

Keystone Pipeline: The Controversy Continues

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has been an on-again, off-again proposition for several years, and it’s currently off again after President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order pulling the plug on the controversial project.

The pipeline would transport oil pumped from Alberta’s corrosive tar sands over environmentally sensitive land and through, for instance, lands belonging to Native American tribes that oppose the project. Biden’s decision to axe the pipeline, which was based primarily on environmental concerns, has also revved up proponents of the project who decry the loss of jobs and, as some have charged, the undercutting of America’s bid for energy independence.

The arguments are familiar and don’t really need to be rehashed here in greater detail.

We can, however, offer a generalized local perspective since the Yankton area already has its own Keystone pipeline from Alberta. It was constructed a decade ago by TransCanada (now TC Energy) and it did leave an impact.

First off, one thing it didn’t leave was thousands of jobs. It certainly brought in a small army of workers, but most of them hailed from places like Texas and Oklahoma. There were a few local people hired for some lower-end, lower-paying jobs. None of these jobs were permanent: The workers were here and then they were gone, and the part-time help vanished. It did leave behind one or two permanent jobs. So, when people talk about the 10,000 or 20,000 (or more) jobs that would be created by the Keystone XL pipeline project, bear in mind that those would be fleeting jobs. Ultimately, the entire project was expected to create a total of about 50 permanent, full-time jobs, some of which would be located in Canada, according to the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman.

However, this isn’t to say the workers didn’t have an impact when they were in the Yankton area. They had to eat and shop during their time here, and that boosted Yankton’s local revenues. Coming as it did amid the Great Recession, the economic bump was a welcomed plus as long as it lasted.

Also, it left behind a continuing economic impact in terms of property tax valuation. According to the TC Energy website, the company accrued $6 million in property taxes across 17 South Dakota counties as of 2017 (the latest year available). It is still feeding the coffers in those counties.

The environmental and energy aspects are more problematic.

The pipeline does have a history of leaks. There was a 16,800-gallon leak east of Menno in 2016; a 407,000-gallon leak near Aberdeen in 2017; and a 380,000-gallon leak in North Dakota in 2019. There have also been several tiny leaks, including a 10-gallon leak near Hartington, Nebraska, and a five-gallon leak near Freeman, both in 2010. Since the pipeline projects move across, above and below environmentally sensitive areas — at Yankton, the pipeline runs underneath the Missouri River — environmentalists have real concerns.

Also, how vital the Keystone project is to America’s energy future is debatable. The current world oil market is stabilized because of OPEC production cuts spurred by a supply glut created by the COVID-19 pandemic along with the fact that an increasing number of industries and individuals are shifting to renewable energy sources. Fossil fuel simply isn’t the wave of the long-term future — consider GM’s announcement last week to phase out gas and diesel engines in favor of electric engines by 2035 — although the need for petroleum, while steadily diminishing, will likely never completely disappear. Thus, it may seem odd that some prominent officials are fervently doubling down on the matter. It could be argued that the longer the Keystone project is delayed, the less relevant it becomes.

Finally (and apart from the local take), the Keystone XL pipeline is also about neighbors. Biden’s decision is being fiercely criticized by South Dakota officials who, either way, will also have to deal with the tribes, other landowners and local groups who oppose the project and will still be here whether the pipeline is built or not.

Controversy seems to be the one constant with this issue, and that will never change until the matter is finally settled, once and for all. Biden’s decision ends yet another chapter in this back-and-forth story, and the battle will likely stagger on.

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