• Marc Johnson

Oil and Water


I don’t normally pay a great deal of attention to the political opinions of Hollywood personalities. So I confess I missed the initial news reports that the actress Daryl Hannah, perhaps best known for playing the mermaid in Ron Howard’s movie Splash, was arrested a few days back for protesting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The lovely Ms. Hannah, talented too, for all I know, isn’t the real story here, however. The politics of jobs is at work. in this international pipeline.

The pipeline project is designed to carry oil recovered from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas and the pipeline, its purpose and route, has been increasingly in the news lately. The U.S. State Department recently released an environmental impact statement that said, in essence, the project could be completed without major environmental problems. Needless to say, not everyone, including Ms. Hannah, agrees.

Most major environmental groups have expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration seems on the verge of approving the pipeline. The President’s mostly natural allies in the environmental movement are also torqued that the administration recently and abruptly dropped new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules related to smog. These two events, separate and linked at the same time, really constitute Exhibit A that the political imperative to grow the economy and create jobs, particularly during a period of prolonged economic turmoil, eventually trump most every other consideration.

My old boss former Idaho Gov. and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, no slouch when it comes to possessing an environmental ethic, used to say: “First, you must making a living and then you must have a living that is worthwhile.” That is just another way of saying that without a job you don’t have much time or ability to enjoy the great outdoors, clean air and water. Needless to say not everyone in public life agrees about the political priority of jobs first. For some being “pure” on the environment is simply a higher calling that transcends all else, including finding some way to jump start a stumbling economy.

Put former Vice President Al Gore in this category. Gore recently, and perhaps entirely predictably,  came out in opposition to the Canada to the Gulf pipeline. The motivations of the Republican Governor of Nebraska Dave Heineman, who says he also opposes the pipeline because of its route through Nebraksa, appear more interesting. Republicans don’t normally oppose pipelines.

Daryl Hannah may look better getting arrested, but Republican Heineman and Democrat Gore as an anti-pipeline dance team may have a lot more impact on this increasingly complex and contentious environmental issue.

Development of Canada’s oil sands resource has long be contentious. Gore, never bashful about hyperpole, calls it the dirtest energy on the planet. Heineman says his opposition is based on the pipeline’s threat to the huge Ogallala aquifer that lies deep below Nebraska and several other states. The route through Nebraska’s special Sand Hills country, where my grandfather homesteaded more than a hundred years ago, is also problematic according to Gov. Heineman.

In Idaho and Montana recently the long public debate and substantial opposition to huge shipments of oilfield gear from the Port of Lewiston to the Canadian fields has been much less about the articulated reasons of shipment opponents – safety, disruption of traffic, etc – than about the mostly unspoken reasons, a strategic desire by environmental groups to prevent, or at least delay, further tar sands development.

As is most often the case, the debate over the pipeline from the Great North is waged with soundbites from all sides that simplify the discussion to the point of distortion.  There is plenty of substance here on all sides, but we never hear much that isn’t the rhetorical equivilent to Daryl Hannah getting arrested in front of the White House.

For example, how many Americans know that we already import more oil from Canada than any other country, in fact, nearly twice as much as we import from Saudi Arabia and four times as much as we ship in from Iraq. What happens without the pipeline? What happens with it? Good luck getting those answers.

The pipeline debate, the fight over the smog rules and the future of nuclear power, just to name three energy issues of the moment, are all symptoms of a failure of national political leadership to confront the fundamentals of how we use energy and where it comes from.

Many on the left of our politics can hardly fathom a serious debate about how we actually might alter the nation’s energy consumption and mix of resources because they know – heck everyone knows – that it can’t be done overnight or without real pain and dislocation. These folks are increasingly locked into a short-term, tactical mindset that creates a environmental emergency about this pipeline or that power plant. Vast expansion of wind energy production in the American West is now seeing the predictable pushback from many of these folks. Real debate and establishment of priorities goes begging with such short-term thinking.

At the same time, the hard right of our political flank pays a premium to someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry who rejects the notion, now the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientic community, that climate charge is a real and urgent fact. Or, closer to home, the short-sighted bemoan the public subsidies “lavished” on public transportation, while completely ignoring that the American system of air service is built on truly vast public subsides for airports, facilities, personnel and equipment.

It’s increasingly hard to have a sensible discussion about public priorities in the United States because we can’t often agree on a common set of facts and assumptions. Is a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf an environmental disaster in the making or a critical piece of infrastructure that keeps the oil following from a nearby neighbor that we haven’t recently had a war with?

Is the delay of $90 billion in smog rules a cave in to the dirty air crowd or a prudent, temporary move that my help the economy get back on its feet?  Jobs versus the environment is a long-term reality of American political life – just not a very constructive debate.

I have this naive notion that the American public is really capable of grappling with the complexity and nuance of these kinds of issues. It’s just been so long since anyone talked to us about complexity and trade-offs that we are out of practice.

Maybe Daryl Hannah can explain.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson