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Akst: ‘KXL’: Just say no, Mr. President

Conservatives rightfully criticized President Barack Obama’s delay in ruling whether the Keystone XL Pipeline can be built across America last Friday.

The U.S. State Department said it would give government agencies more time to study the project while also watching to see how the Nebraska Supreme Court settles a dispute over the proposed path of the pipeline.

Instead of waffling, the president should have said, “There’s no way this monstrosity should be built across America,” or words to that effect.

TransCanada Corp. wants to build a 1,179-mile, 36-inch, steel (but not U.S. steel, according to a Cornell University study) crude oil pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb. From there, the pipeline would connect with other existing pipelines and go to Gulf Coast refineries. At peak capacity, the pipeline could carry nearly 35 million gallons of oil a day.

Here are my main objections:

Jobs. A misunderstood aspect of the pipeline is the number of jobs that could be created and maintained. In January, the State Department issued an analysis saying that – counting everything – a total of 42,100 jobs would be supported. TransCanada agrees with that number.

It’s important to understand the difference between jobs “created” and jobs “supported.” The report said, “Construction spending would support a combined total of approximately 42,100 jobs throughout the United States for the up to 2-year construction period.”

Here, a “job” means a position filled for a year. “Support” means jobs ranging from new jobs to continuing existing jobs in current or new locations. About 16,100 temporary jobs would be “direct jobs at firms that are awarded contracts for goods and services, including construction,” the report said, and the rest (about 26,000) would come from “indirect or induced spending.” For example, the report cites “ranchers providing beef for restaurants and construction camps.”

Once the pipeline is built? The report said it would require “approximately 50 total employees in the United States: 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors.”

Fifty jobs. TransCanada’s “jobs numbers are clear” website said it knows how many jobs are required to build pipelines “right down to the individual job.” But it offers not a single word about how many jobs are required to maintain pipelines.

Gas prices., a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to reducing deception and confusion in American politics, said the pipeline will have negligible effect on gas prices.

Citing the government analysis, which says the Keystone XL pipeline would have “little impact on the prices that U.S. consumers pay for refined products such as gasoline,” independent experts who said the same thing, and the fact that TransCanada doesn’t list lower gas prices in its list of economic benefits, concludes that “there’s simply no evidence that [the pipeline] would have any noticeable effect on prices at the pump, either up or down.”

Safety. Pipeline proponents said the pipeline will be the safest, most state-of-the-art project of its kind ever built. That’s probably true. It’s just that Big Oil’s state-of-the-art safety record is not safe enough. BP’s Deepwater Horizon was state of the art. Shipping oil via rail is more dangerous and results in more oil spills than pipelines, experts said, so the safety issue is less clear. Still, in 2010, U.S. pipeline spills and explosions killed 22 people, released over 170,000 barrels of petroleum into the environment, and caused $1 billion worth of damage in the United States, the Cornell study said.

Carbon emissions. The oil is mostly bitumen, “a form of petroleum so dense that at a temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit it is ‘hard as a hockey puck,’ according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers,” said. It must be heated or diluted to flow through pipes.

In analyzing published scientific literature, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concludes that during the “life cycle of a fuel – from in the ground to out the tailpipe – burning a gallon of fuel from the Canadian oil results in 14 percent to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions, on average, than burning a gallon of currently available fuel.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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