Even as a new administration sets up shop in the White House, Washington, D.C., is stuck fighting the same tired policy battles. Almost exactly a year after Donald Trump approved the right-of-way for the Keystone XL pipeline, newly inaugurated Joe Biden will reverse course and make the project a no-go. This hasty decision, conducted without proper consultation with Canada, is the result of loud “environmentalist” voices alleging that more pipelines come at the cost of ecological degradation.
But, contrary to the narrative pitched by many environmentalists, approval of the pipeline is both a boon for economic development and a step in the green direction. Biden can and must allow the pipeline project to proceed and work with Congress to reform our deeply dysfunctional permitting process.
To see why, it’s important to examine the status quo of oil transportation in North America. After crude is extracted from the tar sands of Canada, the “liquid gold” travels through a tortuous 2,100-mile pipe from Alberta to Nebraska. From there, completed parts of the Keystone pipeline whisk the oil to points farther south and west. But the pipeline segment connecting Canada to the U.S. has seen better days, and pipelines become prone to leaks and spills as they age.
Furthermore, the winding nature of the line opens it up to a greater chance of rupture. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), every one-mile segment of pipe will break and spill once every 7,400 years on average. The proposed addition to the system (Keystone XL) would create a streamlined, 1,200-mile route from Alberta to Nebraska. Even if we disregard pipeline age, creating a shorter route will nearly halve the number of spills over the next decade coming from that portion of the system.
The policy discussion over pipeline construction ought to accommodate these facts and take the failed status-quo into account. Rather than repeat the same national spill statistics every time a new pipeline is proposed, environmental advocates should critically examine the regulations that compromise safety efforts. For example, PHMSA mandating mechanic leak-detection systems guarantees that oil companies will routinely miss ruptures and leaks. Given the high failure rates of these systems, the industry should instead be given the green light to experiment with different detection systems involving various combinations of labor and technology.
More fundamentally, interest groups on both sides should contemplate the role of the chief executive in formulating pipeline policy. International pipelines are traditionally approved or rejected based on economic and environmental analysis undertaken by the State Department. This process was compromised when the Obama administration thwarted the Keystone XL pipeline, despite favorable analysis from the State Department.
President Barack Obama used a similar strategy to thwart Dakota Access, this time overruling an analysis done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Environmentalists cheered but failed to contemplate the precedent created by these moves. When Trump swung the pendulum back in the other direction, pipeline opponents began to realize that politicization is no panacea. This pivotal realization needn’t fade even if their preferred leader is at the helm and making policy decisions.
To restore the rule of law, Congress needs to once again make the State Department and USACE processes workable. Political tug-of-wars over pipeline projects are worsened by protracted review procedures with little transparency on timetables, communications, and budgetary priorities. Making predictable, expedited decisions the norm instead of the exception can go a long way in correcting course on pipeline policy. Meanwhile, deregulation can clear the way for more investment and innovation in pipe safety.
Putting the proper reforms into place almost certainly won’t end bitter pipeline politics. But with the right policies, Americans can have both a cleaner country and lower energy costs.
Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.