environmental concerns and absolutists

Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline project focuses on the potential of an environmentally damaging spill. In Nebraska the safety of the Ogallala Aquifer, though the recent re-routing of the pipeline intends to address that concern. The myopia of pipeline opponents leads to such comments as in a letter to the editor in the Omaha World Herald that “Statistics don’t count. One failure, no matter how remote the chance of it, is it.”

Such a narrow focus precludes recognition of another environmental concern in this country, its economic environment. For absolutists like the cited letter-writer, there is no possible benefit for the economic environment in the country that is even worth considering, regardless of the miniscule risk of an aquifer-polluting spill from the proposed pipeline.

Combining his absolutism with the absolutism of a number of additional special-interests is what is making it increasingly difficult for our economy to produce the prosperity citizens require to improve their situations. They are consigning economically vulnerable people to continued dependency, sacrificing the potential progress of others in exchange for avoiding highly unlikely risk factors.

What makes such a calculation even more absurd is the acceptance of rather more likely risks than the one for which the absolutist has decided to prevent progress. In the case of the Keystone XL pipeline project, the greater risk of railroad accident spills increases as the pipeline is delayed. The opportunity to take older, riskier pipelines out of service, such as the one that led to the spill in Arkansas, is lost. Should Keystone XL be cancelled entirely, not only will the economic environment be degraded (except for Warren Buffett, perhaps), so will the ecological environment that is supposedly being protected.

One suspects the larger goal is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable ones, which will perhaps eventually occur. However, the difference in recoverable energy and the costs of petroleum and natural gas compared to renewable sources at this point leads again to the question of how much deprivation the environmental absolutist is willing to impose on people for the sake of the benefit sought, especially in view of the reductions in emissions in this country in the Kyoto era, even though the U.S. never signed that protocol.

Ongoing prosperity will continue to foster the environment of innovation and development that will lead to economically robust replacements for fossil fuels. The idea that such a replacement can be created by government involvement and market distortion in favor of renewable sources has been tried and found wanting, resulting mainly in the transfer of wealth from citizens to crony capitalist friends of powerful government officials. The irony of the claim to progressivism on the part of pipeline opponents is thick.

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