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Making Sense of the Pipeline Debate

06/05/13

Abraham Energy Report

By Secretary Spencer Abraham

As a former Secretary of Energy, I can confirm what critics of U.S. energy policy often lament: our national conversation on energy has become so politicized that facts and the simple realities of a modern economy often take a back seat to the political needs of various organizations that dominate the debate in the media.  While the politics of the moment always influence events, there is a new character to energy politics that too often brings about incoherent policy outcomes, as partisans of one stripe or another try to marshal facts – as best as they can – to support conclusions to which they are already committed.

Building an “all-of-the-above” energy policy in this atmosphere will be difficult.  Nonetheless, we’ll just have to work through the rhetoric to realize the extraordinary opportunities before us.  The energy economy is changing but energy politics are lagging behind.       

The current debate over oil and gas pipelines is a case in point.  For many, pipelines have become a proxy for reflexive opposition to fossil fuels.  Kill the pipeline, the thinking goes, and you kill the energy commodity running through it.

But it has long been known that transporting oil and gas by pipeline is far and away the safest, cleanest and most efficient means of delivering energy.  The historical record in support of pipelines is indisputable.  In fact, America’s 2.3 million mile network of pipeline infrastructure is a key economic advantage.  One example is unfolding before our eyes as pipelines deliver newly discovered reserves of domestically produced energy from shale to jump-start U.S. manufacturing. 

Like all forms of transportation however, pipelines are not exempt from accidents, which can and do happen, as with failure of the Pegasus Pipeline in Arkansas earlier this year demonstrates.  The advantage is that pipeline failures are generally small, easy to contain and fast to clean up.

In regard to the Pegasus leak, it’s worth considering that the line was commissioned over 40 years ago and that half of the pipeline network is that old as well.  Sensible policy solutions are needed to continue investment in our nation’s safest and most efficient energy infrastructure, upgrade pipelines with the newest safety and diagnostic technologies and improve America’s energy security with more diverse production and distribution.  

Unfortunately, that’s not the discussion we’re having.  Instead, some groups see another opportunities to undermine the Keystone XL pipeline.  Only in America’s hyper-politicized energy debate would anyone seriously argue that an accident at an aging pipeline makes the case against investing in newer, safer energy infrastructure. 

Fighting pipelines can be good politics from some groups as a means of energizing their base supporters.  The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil to U.S. refineries, was a key issue in the 2012 campaign.  But with the campaign behind us, their arguments against Keystone are faltering and support for its construction is growing. 

What’s a pipeline opponent to do?  If you can’t argue against the pipeline, argue against the commodity running through it. Keystone will transport Canadian heavy crude and, they say, Canadian oil is riskier to pipeline integrity.  Of course there is no basis for this claim and it conveniently ignores a 44-year record of safely transporting Canadian heavy crude oil in U.S. pipelines.

Argument from all sides is important, if not always informative.  But if the history of U.S. energy policy debates is a guide, Keystone will eventually be built and the U.S. will expand and improve our pipeline network.  This will happen not because we were more clever in our arguments, but because of the facts on the ground.  People will recognize that pipelines are a good choice and that they are essential infrastructure in securing a reliable energy supply for the American people.