In Romney’s Keystone Pipeline Stance, Hypocrisy

Pipes for Keystone I in 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Besides repealing Obamacare, Mitt Romney has said he would issue a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on his very first day as president. That’s an interesting statement from a candidate who, when it comes to other issues, portrays himself as a standard-bearer for states’ rights. In this case, he seems to be saying that as soon as oil crosses an international border, local concerns go out the window. Of course, on other occasions –- as when immigrants cross international borders –– local concerns count for a whole lot more.

Keystone XL would originate in the Canadian province of Alberta, pumping the heavy, tar-like substance called bitumen, then picking up oil from the Bakken shale while slicing through Montana and South Dakota. It’s when the pipeline crosses into Nebraska that it runs into political trouble.

Protests were few when TransCanada, the pipeline company, laid the pipeline that was called Keystone I across Nebraska. But then, right after the route selection, there came the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a giant spill of bitumen crude in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, and a ruptured pipe in the Yellowstone River. All raised questions about oil safety. The Kalamazoo spill particularly sharpened concerns over whether bitumen, because of its corrosive and acidic qualities, poses special hazards in pipeline transport.

Pipeline safety is a federal responsibility. Whether federal standards are up to snuff for bitumen is an open question, though. Congress has directed further study, a task delegated to the National Academy of Sciences, with a report due in 2013 –– probably an after-the-fact event if Romney gets elected.

Pipeline routing, by contrast, is normally a state responsibility. In this case, the U.S. State Department must approve the pipeline because it would cross the international border from Canada. Routing across the individual states is basically a state and local matter. In Nebraska, routing is subject to environmental review, now under way in a partnership between the State Department and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

Last fall, Republicans in Congress put President Barack Obama on the spot by demanding a decision. Sidestepping, he denied the permit in January but invited TransCanada to apply with a new route. In April, TransCanada did just that. This new route gives a wider berth to the Sand Hills as they are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency. But it avoids neither sand nor high water tables.

In early May, while doing research for a story, I visited a ranch along the Niobrara River that would be crossed by this new proposed route of Keystone XL. It’s in the Midwest, east of the 100th meridian, but the setting has a wilder, more untamed feel to it. On the ranch of Karl Connell, I dug into the ground and found it to be sandy and wet, like what you’d put in a bowl for a pet turtle. The water table was just a few feet below ground. In other words, at least a portion of this new route looks very much like the old route. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman supports the pipeline, but Nebraskans remain divided.

John K. Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, one of the organizations fighting the pipeline, sees Romney’s support for quickly building the pipeline as rife with hypocrisy.

“Here is a guy who on one hand is railing against the excesses of the heavy-handed federal government,” he said. “Yet they don’t bat an eye when they’re getting ready to ram an international pipeline down the throats of landowners and the state, without any regard for siting authority or the use of eminent domain.”

The suggestion that the bitumen will make the United States more energy independent also seems fanciful. Some critics think it would end up as diesel and be exported to world markets. TransCanada’s promise of 20,000 jobs has also been questioned; at any rate, after construction is completed, just a few dozen lasting jobs will remain.

In Nebraska, the cattle ranchers I met took a long view. Many who have lived on the land for four generations say they want better assurances that hasty decisions won’t imperil their land and water. “If you don’t take care of your land, it won’t take care of you,” a rancher told me. “You don’t take care of your water, you don’t have anything.”

None of this, of course, can be boiled down into a 30-second campaign ad promising a quick fix.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit In affiliation with High Country News.

{ 6 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Ryan

    Can’t there be any media in this country that is not politically affiliated? Don’t you worry about alienating half of your potential audience?

  • Justin

    Well said Ryan. I visit here for a daily 15 minute escape from the “real” world. The amount of political and environmental content lately is NOT why I visit… quite opposite in fact, it has me coming here less. More adventure stoke, less enviro-political rambling.

  • scott

    Good information but stupidly conveyed. The writer certainly has an agenda to prove and is not willing to look at the other side of the argument and the effects it will have on America.

  • Jason

    I’m glad this blog covers political and environmental issues. Our pursuit of adventure stoke shouldn’t exist in a bubble of neglect. It’s good to foster debates about these things as many of them will have a very tangible impact on our interaction with the outdoors. For example, the recent post on those damn Adventure Passes hits home for me. @scott you’ve got a keyboard, lets hear the other side of the argument buddy!

  • Dirty Feat

    Its funny to me that so many of you so called adventure junkies only seem to care about getting your stoke on without caring about the tangible aspects that create “stoke.” Climbers, hikers, surfers, riders, whatever it is that you are… you must realize that without the natural world, this “stoke” that allows you to escape real life, is ultimately impossible to experience. Sure politics suck, but so does ignorance. Face the facts people… your lifestyles rely on the natural world, not on the unemployment rate.

  • Ray

    Yeah, but you can’t buy a new bike or climbing gear with a rock and some twigs. You’re gonna need a job, to earn money, to afford your adventure. Why not preserve some areas and develop others? Surely things can be balanced.

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