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My Turn: Why Alaskans should care about Keystone XL pipeline

Posted: March 6, 2012 - 1:02am

President Barack Obama’s denial of the Keystone XL pipeline may seem like a distant political battle, but there are reasons why Alaskans should care about the project beyond its potential to raise America’s employment levels and energy security.

The reasons for allowing the pipeline are straightforward. It is a genuinely “shovel-ready” project that would bring crude oil from Canada and the American Midwest to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The $7 billion pipeline is a world—class private-sector infrastructure project. Its construction would put thousands of Americans to work without government subsidies.

The 900,000 barrels of oil the Keystone XL pipeline could deliver daily to American refineries would strengthen our ties with Canada and reduce our reliance on imports from OPEC countries like Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez continues to advocate against America’s interests.

Keystone XL is exactly the type of project that a nation mired in debt, deeply dependent on expensive foreign oil, and desperate for new jobs should embrace. Unfortunately, what should be an easy decision has fallen victim of election-year politics.

The State Department began reviewing Keystone in 2008, and was expected to make a decision by the end of last year. In January, however, Obama denied a permit that would have allowed the pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. TransCanada recently announced it was moving ahead with construction of a small portion of the pipeline between Oklahoma and Texas, but it’s still unable to build the most important part of the line across the U.S.-Canadian border.

Anti-oil lobbyists hailed the president’s decision as a victory, but the decision puts American waters — including the Gulf of Alaska — at greater risk of an oil spill, and could result in higher levels of global pollution.

Canada will develop its oil resources whether America buys them or not. Even the Obama administration’s own Energy Department has acknowledges that fact.

If Canada cannot sell its oil to its closest neighbor and ally, Plan B is to ship its oil to growing Asian markets. Indeed, shortly after the president rejected Keystone, Canada’s prime minister boarded a plane bound for China.

Clearly, China is much further from Canada than the United States. That raises the question of transport. Without Keystone, Canadian companies are now developing plans to build a pipeline headed west, to British Columbia.

From there, Canadian oil would be transported to Asian markets — not by pipeline, but most likely on about 250 Chinese-built, single-hulled vessels with foreign crews. Those tankers would sail for Asia through Canadian waters that border the Gulf of Alaska.

This should make anyone who remembers the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 nervous. That tanker — also single-hulled — spilled more than 250,000 barrels of oil when it hit a reef in Prince William Sound.

In the wake of that disaster, Congress required double-hulled tankers to minimize the likelihood of future spills. Yet, by rejecting the Keystone pipeline, we are effectively re-inviting those ships back into our waters. Should another terrible accident occur, that Canadian oil once bound for the Lower 48 through a land-based pipeline could instead wash up on Alaskan shores.

The risks and impacts do not end at the water’s edge. After navigating the Gulf of Alaska, tankers would land in China and other nations that do not operate under the same stringent environmental safeguards required by the United States. Their refineries will emit more pollution than American refineries — another net loss for the environment.

A final and less obvious reason for Alaskans to support Keystone XL is that we may someday find ourselves in the reverse of today’s situation. Canada is our neighbor and one of our great friends, but if the United States refuses to act rationally on major joint projects, that could quickly change. Alaska needs Canada’s cooperation on so many critical issues — from natural gas and rail lines to fisheries and even border security.

It may seem incredibly unlikely that Canada will ever be anything but our staunchest ally. But not long ago it was equally unthinkable that the United States would ever reject a Canadian pipeline, bringing oil and jobs we need, solely for political purposes.

The Keystone XL pipeline represents a chance to improve our nation’s economy, strengthen a relationship with one of our key allies, and bolster our energy security. While it may seem like a non-issue for Alaska, it’s also an opportunity to protect our waters — and the world’s environment — from harm.

• Murkowski is one of two senators representing Alaska in Washington, D.C.

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