Besides repealing "Obamacare," Mitt Romney has said he would issue a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on his very first day as president. That's an interesting statement from a candidate who, when it comes to other issues, portrays himself as a standard-bearer for states' rights. In this case, he seems to be saying that as soon as oil crosses an international border, local concerns go out the window. Of course, on other occasions - as when immigrants cross international borders - local concerns count for a whole lot more.
Keystone XL would originate in the Canadian province of Alberta, pumping the heavy, tar-like substance called bitumen, then picking up oil from the Bakken shale while slicing through Montana and South Dakota. It's when the pipeline crosses into Nebraska that it runs into political trouble.
Protests were few when TransCanada, the pipeline company, laid the pipeline that was called Keystone I across Nebraska. But then, right after the route selection, there came the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a giant spill of bitumen crude in Michigan's Kalamazoo River, and a ruptured pipe in the Yellowstone River. All raised questions about oil safety. The Kalamazoo spill particularly sharpened concerns over whether bitumen, because of its corrosive and acidic qualities, poses special hazards in pipeline transport.
Pipeline safety is a federal responsibility. Whether federal standards are up to snuff for bitumen is an open question, though. Congress has directed further study, a task delegated to the National Academy of Sciences, with a report due in 2013 - probably an after-the-fact event if Romney gets elected.
Pipeline routing, by contrast, is normally a state responsibility. In this case, the U.S. State Department must approve the pipeline because it would cross the international border from Canada. Routing across the individual states is basically a state and local matter. In Nebraska, routing is subject to environmental review, now under way in a partnership between the State Department and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
Last fall, Republicans in Congress put President Barack Obama on the spot by demanding a decision. Sidestepping, he denied the permit in January but invited TransCanada to apply with a new route. In April, TransCanada did just that. This new route gives a wider berth to the Sand Hills as they are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency. But it avoids neither sand nor high water tables.
In early May, while doing research for a story, I visited a ranch along the Niobrara River that would be crossed by this new proposed route of Keystone XL. It's in the Midwest, east of the 100th meridian, but the setting has a wilder, more untamed feel to it. On the ranch of Karl Connell, I dug into the ground and found it to be sandy and wet, like what you'd put in a bowl for a pet turtle. The water table was just a few feet below ground. In other words, at least a portion of this new route looks very much like the old route. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman supports the pipeline, but Nebraskans remain divided.
John K. Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, one of the organizations fighting the pipeline, sees Romney's support for quickly building the pipeline as rife with hypocrisy.
"Here is a guy who on one hand is railing against the excesses of the heavy-handed federal government," he said. "Yet they don't bat an eye when they're getting ready to ram an international pipeline down the throats of landowners and the state, without any regard for siting authority or the use of eminent domain."
The suggestion that the bitumen will make the United States more energy independent also seems fanciful. Some critics think it would end up as diesel and be exported to world markets. TransCanada's promise of 20,000 jobs has also been questioned; at any rate, after construction is completed, just a few dozen lasting jobs will remain.
In Nebraska, the cattle ranchers I met took a long view. Many who have lived on the land for four generations say they want better assurances that hasty decisions won't imperil their land and water. "If you don't take care of your land, it won't take care of you," a rancher told me. "You don't take care of your water, you don't have anything."
None of this, of course, can be boiled down into a 30-second campaign ad promising a quick fix.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about natural resource issues from the Denver area.