The key to Keystone? Just build it right

Keystone XL is an economic issue, and an environmental issue, and a political issue. Before any of that, however, Keystone XL is an engineering issue.


In the continuing debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, there really are just two sides. You either favor building it, or you favor shelving it. The debate is black and white, left and right, pro and con. You either can see the economic benefit and believe the environmental impact can be managed, or you believe the environmental risk is simply too great, no matter the economic benefit.

And if that’s all I had to say on the topic, or if that’s all there was to the topic, there’d be a lot of white space at the bottom of this page. But I don’t. And it isn’t. And there won’t be.

The pipeline, stretching more than 2,000 miles from the oil sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, has generated debate and delay since it was first proposed, and the hard lines that have been drawn over this project simply harden as time passes.

One fact that is little understood is that three phases of Keystone already are in operation. Phase 1 extends from the Hardisty Terminal in Alberta east through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, then south through the Dakotas and terminating at Steele City, Neb., and then east again through Missouri to Wood River, Ill. Phase 2 connects Steele City and Cushing, Okla., and Phase 3 runs from Cushing to Houston and Port Arthur, Tex.

The proposal for Phase 4 would essentially eliminate the Phase 1 routing and cut the corner by going almost straight southeast from Alberta through Montana, South Dakota, and western Nebraska to Steele City.

Keystone XL is an economic issue, and an environmental issue, and a political issue. Many people I talk to in our industry see it as a manufacturing issue as well. Before any of that, however, Keystone XL is an engineering issue. That’s the part of this debate that is widely overlooked, yet it is to me the most crucial part of the debate. So I quietly offer this idea, and wait for the e-mail box to load up with the responses:

Let’s not build Keystone XL. Let’s build Keystone XL right, the first time.

The immediate howls from the environmental supports suggests that it can’t be done, that we can’t trust that it will be done, that there is no way to build such a project so that it will have no impact.

The Keystone supporters will sit back and appreciate someone coming out with some kind words about this project, given all the protests about it to date, and given the lack of leadership from anyone east of the Potomac on this project.

And you’re both wrong. The key word is to build it right. Right is not fast or cheap or environmentally insensitive. It will cost more than the projected $7 billion that it will take to build Keystone properly, and those who support the project had better be prepared to come to the table with that additional money, not as a gesture of good will or good faith but because they are absolutely, unfailingly committed to building it correctly and are prepared to unflinchingly demonstrate how that can happen.

And given that commitment, those with legitimate environmental concerns must be willing to see that commitment, understand the parameters of such a project on both sides, and also unfailingly understand that “right” does not mean “perfect” or “infallible.”

We have faced such challenges before. The Interstate Highway system wasn’t really started until 1956 when President Eisenhower saw the benefits of the system and signed the enabling bill into law. It was built over the next 36 years, and while it still undergoes changes (our readers in Charlotte and Atlanta can attest to that), the basic system connects most everyone in the contiguous U.S. with most everyone else along one more or less continuous highway system. Yes, it was done well, but it was not perfect. In the end, though, it has been essential to our economy, our national defense (one of the understated reasons the system was created), and our ability to see America from behind the wheel of our car.

While all this was going on, we tackled a far more daunting project in the 1960s when President Kennedy challenged America to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. In his famous 1962 speech on the topic, Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

For me, there are no words which so completely sum up my America as those. We always should strive to do great things, to marshal our efforts toward great achievement. We have before. We can again.

So build the pipeline. Just build it right.

Anonymous , 06/10/14 08:41 AM:

Finally a rational position - Well written, should be understood by all - then approve it, build it!
Greg , NC, United States, 06/11/14 02:09 PM:

The keystone crosses some of the largest aquifers in the United States. The question is not if it ruptures but when will it rupture 2, 5, 10 years. The pipeline has an inherent flaw built in. Abrasive tar sands in metal piping. The pipeline will rupture and contaminate the underlying aquifer - can we take this chance just to pad the wallets of politicians?
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