Where There's Oil, There are Oil Spills

The Tidewater Pipe Line Company began building the first long-distance oil pipeline in 1878. The 110-mile project, which ran across Pennsylvania, was a bid to run around John D. Rockefeller's all-powerful Standard Oil Company. Standard Oil had a range of tricks to fight against Tidewater, including bribing Maryland legislators to bar the pipeline from their state and buying up land that the pipeline might run over. But one powerful tactic was invoking farmers' fears of oil spills and ruined crops: The company planted stories in local papers predicting the worst.

Like Standard Oil, environmentalists have been using safety concerns to try to block a pipeline project that they dislike for completely different reasons. Groups like NRDC and the National Wildlife Federation are taking a stand on the State Department's environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will extend down to Texas an existing pipeline that pumps tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the Midwest. The environmental groups are arguing that the pipeline poses a risk of spills and threatens in particular a Nebraska reservoir that waters large swaths of Midwest crops.

But they also will say that this argument isn't really about spills: It's about tar sands as a source for energy. Like mountaintop removal mining, tar sands oil extraction devastates the landscape from which it's pulled. Tar sands oil also needs more refining, which uses energy and increases its carbon footprint. It's not a green choice for the fuel of the future.

There is a lot of it in Canada, though, and from a foreign policy point of view, it might be better to get more of our fuel from anywhere other than from the Middle East. But whether or not America should be doubling down on tar sands is a different question than whether it'll be safe to transport the oil to Texas. That's not the conversation that's happening, though. And the strategy is not working: Safety concerns don't seem to be convincing anyone to scrap the project altogether. If the pipeline does get State Department approval, the country will have committed long term to using a source of dirty, planet-killing fuel without ever really discussing whether that, in and of itself, is a good plan.

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