CIERP Header Image

A new addition to tradition: Fletcher students debate environmental issues

February 7, 2012

The keystone pipeline has been one of the most controversial environmental issues in recent times that has rocked the US political circles and generated heated debate. The Obama administration last month rejected the Keystone XL pipeline project that would link the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, yet the debate has not died down. At Fletcher, battle lines were drawn on Tuesday night when Kartik Misra and Katie Walsh passionately defended their positions with incisive arguments on the issue. The student debate is a new addition to a long standing Fletcher tradition – a pre-cursor to the annual Moomaw/Everett showdown.

Katie Walsh said in her opening remarks that the pipeline is not in US interests as it would not reduce dependency on foreign oil. “It will not reduce the cost of oil or create thousands of jobs. The fuel has never been destined for US markets as the oil sent through the pipeline will be diverted from the Canadian oil refineries in the mid west to the Gulf coast where it will be refined and sold overseas to Latin American and European markets. The pipeline will serve global – not domestic – demand, moreover, many of the gulf coast refineries are not subject to US taxes.”

Walsh raised concerns about the environmental risks associated with this project. “Leaks and spills threaten rivers and communities all along the route. The keystone pipeline would run through massive and vital aquifers that supply drinking water to over two million people. It also supplies the region’s agriculture industry, affecting 20 percent of agriculture production.”

In contrast, Kartik Misra argued that the pipelines are the safest mode of transportation and environmental threats may be overblown. “Let’s say we don’t build this pipeline, then there are two ways it’s going to work. One, it might not be coming to the US through pipelines, it will either come by trains or by truck. Trains and Trucks are 6-7 times more carbon intensive, which will produce more carbon dioxide in the transportation process,” Misra said.

Misra pointed towards the findings of the US Department of Transport, and said that actual pipeline spillage in the US in the last twenty years is 2.5 million barrels of oil, whereas the US consumes more than 18 million barrels of oil per day, so the oil spill threat is very small.

Walsh countered this argument by saying that the Canadian government itself has put the brakes on two pipeline proposals to export tar sands through its provinces due to opposition from its own public as well as concerns over water and safety. She asked why Americans should bear the burden.

In response, Misra discussed the geo-political ramifications of this project and said the Canadians are already exporting some of this oil to China and they are more than willing to buy it. “The reason China and the US are the only two destinations is because the refineries in China and the US are the only ones that have actual hardware to process tar sand oil. So there is no other place where people are willing to make investments. The fact is whether we consume it here in the US where there are high efficiency standards or in Europe or China, carbon is going to come out. It’s a global greenhouse gas.” 

Exactly how many jobs Keystone would generate remains in dispute. TransCanada claims the project would generate more than 20,000 jobs, but Walsh debunked the idea. “TransCanada has overstated the number of jobs to be created by the pipeline. According to the US State Department, the pipeline will create at most 6,500 temporary construction jobs. So claims that the pipeline would employ hundreds of thousands of people are not true. A Cornell University study concluded that the pipeline would kill more jobs than it would create by reducing incentives and investment in the clean energy economy.”

Misra believes that the regulatory frameworks are the key in the US and Canada, and that there is a strong environment lobby where people actually have legal recourse. “In Alberta, there is a 15 dollar a ton carbon tax, so they are actually much more forward in their thinking environmentally than most other places are. In Canada, companies are paying taxes to negate their carbon footprints, so it would be much better if we let it happen in a developed country, which has a regulatory framework.”

Both participants had well entrenched convictions, yet they seemed to agree on the need to formulate a better monitoring system, a strong regulatory environment, and increase funding for clean energy to reduce dependence on oil.

-Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD candidate F13