Keystone XL huge for Alberta

Political events in Middle America this week pretty much ensure that the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved and constructed.

Political events in Middle America this week pretty much ensure that the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved and constructed.

That means America will have an assured supply of crude oil from Alberta’s oilsands for decades to come.

The U.S. imports 10 million barrels of oil every day. Better from Alberta than from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, I say.

Keystone XL means thousands of construction jobs in America, building the $7-billion line, and thousands more enduring, high-paying jobs in Alberta for years, extracting that oil. It means a steady flow of billions of dollars into the provincial treasury for generations to come.

It also means more carbon emissions pumped into the atmosphere and greater attendant costs associated with global warming.

The people likely to be most affected by this development are the world’s poorest people, enduring droughts or living in low-lying regions that will be swamped as Arctic ice-caps melt.

That, in itself, is a gravely serious problem. But it alone is not enough to justify mothballing Keystone XL.

Great strides are being made in developing alternative energy sources that are less environmentally degrading than petroleum. But none will come close to matching the cost, availability and energy-intensity of petroleum for years to come.

For that, as Albertans, we can count ourselves blessed.

Until this week, the sticking point for Keystone XL was a route proposal that traversed a vital water-supply aquifer in Nebraska.

Never mind that numerous pipelines already cross that vast water reservoir; political opposition there led President Barack Obama to demand a 12-to-18-month delay this month, while environmental threats are assessed and alternatives considered.

Obama’s initiative seemed driven less by one more pipe crossing territory where many others already exist than offending ecologically-minded Democrats who want a massive new fossil-fuel project killed outright and forever.

Obama’s initiative was designed to kick the project down the road until after the 2012 presidential election.

TransCanada Corp., the backer of Keystone XL, undercut Obama this week by promising to move the proposed pipeline out of the sensitive Nebraska Sand Hills. This change will add an extra 48 to 64 km of pipe and one more pumping station to the proposed 2,700-km route.

The incremental costs seem a pittance to ensure speedy regulatory approval.

Nebraska’s Republican governor and the state legislature immediately came on board Tuesday, endorsing TransCanada’s new plan.

Company president Russ Gerling said this week that the route change could reduce the regulatory approval process to between six and nine months. He also hopes to build part of the line — between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast — before the entire international route is fully approved.

All this amounts to a huge victory for Alberta, but a bittersweet one.

We are repeatedly assured that economies of scale make it cheaper to ship crude oil south to Texas — where there is spare refining capacity — than to build new refineries here, create local jobs and process it here.

Income from new oil exports puts the onus on Alberta to pursue every available option in limiting the growth of our carbon footprint.

Many things can be done and, in fact, many positive developments are being advanced here.

Oilsands tailings ponds — a toxic mixture of petroleum, sand and water, which gave Alberta a global black eye when thousands of ducks landed on them and died in 2008 and last year — are being phased out.

So are the massive strip mines that scarred hundreds of acres at the early oilsands plants. As it is, the shallowest and cheapest mine sites are being tapped out.

The newest plants use relatively tiny ecological footprints, tapping oil reserves with steam, injected far below the surface of the earth.

That process uses enormous amounts of water, which is always an environmental concern. But 95 per cent of that water is now recycled, cleaned and reused, and with the advancing pace of technological progress, you can expect to see that percentage rise.

Every new oilsands plant built in Alberta is more energy efficient and ecologically sound than the one that preceded it.

With crude oil prices topping $100 a barrel on global oil markets this week despite the ongoing threats of a Euro-driven global recession, there’s tremendous incentive for oil companies to maximize their own energy efficiency.

Every dollar wasted through energy-inefficient processes comes from their bottom line.

For average Albertans, the bottom line is insisting that our government creates a fair monetary return on a resource we own, and a relentless demand that oil extractors steadily diminish their environmental footprint.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.