A Philosopher's Blog

Debating the Keystone XL Pipeline

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2015

The Keystone XL Pipeline has become a powerful symbol in American politics. Those that oppose it can take it as a symbol of all that is wrong: environmental dangers, global warming, big corporations, and other such evils. Those who support it can take it as a symbol of all that is good: jobs, profits, big corporations and other such goods. While I am no expert when it comes to pipelines, I thought it would be worthwhile to present a concise discussion of the matter.

The main substantial objections against the pipeline are environmental. One concern is that pipelines do suffer from leaks and these leaks can inflict considerable damage to the environment (including the water sources that are used by people). The material that will be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to be rather damaging to the environment and rather problematic in terms of its cleanup.

Those who support the pipeline counter these objections by claiming that the pipelines are relatively safe—but this generally does not reassure people who have seen the impact of previous leaks. Another approach used by supporters is to point out that if the material is not transported by pipeline, companies will transport it by truck and by train. These methods, some claim, are more dangerous than the pipelines. Recent explosions of trains carrying such material do tend to serve as evidence for this claim. There is also the claim that using trucks and trains as a means of transport will create more CO2 output and hence the pipeline is a better choice in regards to the environment.

Some of those who oppose the pipeline contend that the higher cost of using trucks and trains will deter companies from using them (especially with oil prices so low). So, if the pipeline is not constructed, there would not be the predicted increase in CO2 levels from the use of these means of transportation. The obvious counter to this is that companies are already using trucks and trains to transport this material, so they already seem to be willing to pay the higher cost. It can also be pointed out that there are already a lot of pipelines so that one more would not make that much difference.

In addition to the leaks, there is also the concern about the environmental impact of acquiring the material to be transported by the pipeline and the impact of using the fossil fuels created from this material. Those opposed to the pipeline point out how it will contribute to global warming and pollution.

Those who support the pipeline tend to deny climate change or accept climate change but deny that humans cause it, or accept that humans cause it but contend that there is nothing that we can do that would be effective (mainly because China and other countries will just keep polluting). Another approach is to argue that the economic benefits outweigh any alleged harms.

Proponents of the pipeline claim that it will create a massive number of jobs. Opponents point out that while there will be some job creation when it is built (construction workers will be needed), the number of long term jobs will be very low. The opponents seem to be right—leaving out cleanup jobs, it does not take a lot of people to maintain a modern pipeline. Also, it is not like businesses will open up along the pipeline once it is constructed—it is not like the oil needs hotels or food. It is, of course, true that the pipeline can be a moneymaker for the companies—but it does seem unlikely that this pipeline will have a significant impact on the economy. After all, it would just be one more pipeline among many.

As might be guessed, some of the debate is over the matters of fact discussed above, such the environmental impact of building or not building the pipeline. Because many of the parties presenting the (alleged) facts have a stake in the matter, this makes getting objective information a bit of a problem. After all, those who have a financial or ideological interest in the pipeline will tend to present numbers that support the pipeline—that it creates many jobs and will not have much negative impact. Those who oppose it will tend to do the opposite—their numbers will tend to tell against the pipeline. This is not to claim that people are lying, but to simply point out the obvious influences of biases.

Even if the factual disputes could be settled, the matter is rather more than a factual disagreement—it is also a dispute over values. Environmental issues are generally political in the United States, with the right usually taking stances for business and against the environment and the left taking pro-environment and anti-business stances. The Keystone XL pipeline is no exception and has, in fact, become a symbol of general issues in regards to the environment and business.

As noted above, those who support the pipeline (with some interesting exceptions) generally reject or downplay the environmental concerns in favor of their ideological leaning. Those that oppose it generally reject or downplay the economic concerns in favor of their ideological leaning.

While I am pro-environment, I do not have a strong rational opposition to the pipeline. The main reasons are that there are already many pipelines, that the absence of the pipeline would not lower fossil fuel consumption, and that companies would most likely expand the use of trains and trucks (which would create more pollution and potentially create greater risks). However, if I were convinced that not having the pipeline would be better than having it, I would certainly change my position.

There is, of course, also the matter of symbolism—that one should fight or support something based on its symbolic value. It could be contended that the pipeline is just such an important symbol and that being pro-environment obligates a person to fight it, regardless of the facts. Likewise, someone who is pro-business would be obligated to support it, regardless to the facts.

While I do appreciate the value of symbols, the idea of supporting or opposing something regardless of the facts strikes me as both irrational and immoral.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 23, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I agree. The US is already criss-crossed with thousands of miles of pipelines. It’s not like Keystone will be the first and only one. In fact, I think Keystone will replace some dangerously old sections of existing pipeline already being used, which will make things safer than they are now. By the way, trucks and trains burning diesel fuel emit far fewer hydrocarbons than do cars burning gasoline.

    • Glen Wallace said, on February 24, 2015 at 5:30 am

      Are you sure Keystone will replace any existing pipeline? My understanding is that Keystone would be an entirely new line that would be a straight shot from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf oil refineries with no merging with any other lines along the way.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 24, 2015 at 5:21 pm

        They’re using a combination of trains and existing pipelines now. I think Keystone will replace some of the need for trains and older sections of existing pipelines now being used. The Lac Magantic train accident and the Mayflower, Arkansas pipeline spill were, I think, examples of both.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 24, 2015 at 7:33 pm

          If the newer pipeline is safer than the older ones, than that would be a point in its favor. As a practical matter, we will be transporting oil for a long time, so the realistic approach is to go with the safest method.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 24, 2015 at 5:26 pm

        Here’s an article that mentions the need to use trains and existing pipelines if Keystone isn’t built: “Last month the State Department released an environmental impact statement predicting three possible scenarios if the President decides to block the pipeline. All three point to more crude by rail. The oil would either 1) move to Oklahoma by train before being shipped by existing pipelines, 2) ship by rail to British Columbia before being loaded on tankers, or 3) travel directly by rail from Alberta to the Gulf…”

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 24, 2015 at 7:32 pm

        I think it is a new pipeline rather than a replacement of an existing one.

        • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 24, 2015 at 10:47 pm

          The article I mentioned (above) says that without Keystone XL the oil will “move to Oklahoma by rail before being shipped by existing pipelines” so I’m thinking Keystone XL will be newer and safer than those “existing pipelines”. Like you said we have many pipelines already, and they are using them to transport this oil where and when possible. Keystone XL would give them one pipeline from source to shipping point, instead of using trains and existing pipelines. I guess Obama vetoed it anyways.😛

  2. Glen Wallace said, on February 24, 2015 at 5:26 am

    The lack of economic benefits of the pipeline are true since most of the jobs created are mere temp jobs and as you rightly point out, the pipeline will provide little to no foundation to organic economic growth in the economies surrounding the pipeline.

    However, I disagree in how you seem to be saying that the environmental comparisons between the pipeline and rail is somewhat of a wash. The are a number of environmental advantages to rail transport as opposed to pipeline transport. First, since rail traffic is done above ground it is much easier to monitor for leaks. I think normally tanker rail cars are reliably free of any leaks unless there is some catastrophic accident such as a derailment — so there will be no missing a leak unlike a below ground pipeline like Keystone. While the pipeline companies claim they have all sorts of monitoring sensors for leaks, they don’t always seem to prevent massive leaks like the one that happened in Michigan a few years back. Also, because pipelines are underground, leaks have a much more direct rout into the precious groundwater as compared to above ground rail traffic. And rail traffic has the built in safety measure of each car being physically separated from each other and thus limiting the volume of each spill. A pipeline has no such limitation and therefore just keeps on gushing any leak until the valves get turned off.

    What I would like to see from the pipeline opponents is a strategy that would play stronger to the political right that otherwise would tend to support the pipeline. In any argument, often the best approach is to find a way to use some position that the opponent already accepts as true and show how that position undermines their opposing argument. In the pipeline controversy, that position might be found in the area of property rights. There are already dozens of lawsuits by land owners fighting the eminent domain that would force those owners to allow the Keystone XL pipeline be planted in their private land. It is normally the right wing of politics, especially the libertarians of that wing, that most fervently voice their opposition to having their property rights violated. Although I have noticed how the most powerful and visible libertarians such as Ron and Ron Paul seem to be mysteriously silent about these frequent fights by private land owners against pipeline construction and gas and oil exploration. This also brings up another environmental advantage to rail transport — the cars are on existing rail lines. But in order to build the Keystone, significant natural habitat will have to be disturbed if not destroyed.

    • nailheadtom said, on February 24, 2015 at 7:28 am

      What property rights? In spite of the fact that a given piece of real estate has been around in one form or another for billions of years and will probably be here for many years more, people seem to feel that it’s possible for them to personally “own” it. Of course, this is a myth. In some tribal societies individuals have forms of property rights that don’t include an ownership of the land. In the case of the nation/state failure to pay taxes terminates ownership and land use is heavily regulated. While other factors will have an influence on the construction of the Keystone pipeline, the interplay of politics will be what determines if it’s built.

      • Glen Wallace said, on February 24, 2015 at 4:53 pm

        In my comment I thought I made it clear that the goal would be to leverage the beliefs of a certain political segment — the libertarian right, as a means to convince or sway that political group to side against the pipeline. I wasn’t arguing either way about the legal or ontological accuracy of such beliefs about property rights.

        • wtp said, on February 25, 2015 at 12:53 pm

          So you’re admittedly more of a polemics/sophist than a philosopher.

          • Glen Wallace said, on March 18, 2015 at 6:07 am

            You’re confusing an admission with an alleged revelation.

            • WTP said, on March 19, 2015 at 8:58 am

              Yes. I see where that totally defeats my point.

              Three weeks of constipating and that’s what you come up with? Curious. Was this an attempt by you to be funny? ‘Cause I’d at least have to give you some props. Yet you’ve never struck me as a funny kind of guy. Well not funny-ha-ha anyway. So it seems to be something of a lucky accident. Well bully for you.

            • Glen Wallace said, on March 26, 2015 at 4:16 am

              It is ironic how you state that I defeated your point, when in your following sentences you failed to provide single one. I’m left wondering, ‘well, what’s your point?’

            • WTP said, on March 27, 2015 at 9:00 am

              You should know. you’re making it for me the longer this goes on.

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