The word from Washington is that one of the first official acts of the Biden presidency will be to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
As has every development in the pipeline project’s convoluted 17-year history, the indication of Biden’s intention has produced both distress and jubilation in Montana.
The pipeline would carve a 285-mile long path through eastern Montana — the longest stretch of the 1,200-mile route in any single state. According to state government estimates, along that path the pipeline is expected to generate more than $80 million in property taxes for cash-strapped rural counties. It will provide thousands of construction jobs but very few permanent jobs — fewer than 50 by most estimates.
It’s no accident that the pipeline has been supported by a cavalcade of Montana politicians and leaders from both parties. Its short-term economic boost is undeniable.
It’s also not surprising to see the bitter opposition from environmentalists and others in the pipeline’s path, including many on the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux Reservation, where the pipeline is considered an intrusion on sacred ground and a threat to the tribe’s water supply.
Environmentalists object to the production of oil from Alberta’s tar sands, which produces far more carbon emissions than the average for petroleum production.
Also, a persistent glut of oil has continued for the past six years, with the many pipelines from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf (the last stretch of the Keystone system, by the way) literally awash in oil.
Perhaps the most immediate argument against the pipeline is the risk of spills. While the industry maintains that moving oil by pipeline is hundreds of times safer than transporting it by train or truck, those statistics are cold comfort to communities affected by pipeline spills. And the Yellowstone River has been the site of two major, destructive pipeline spills in recent years.
Actuarial tables based on industry norms tell us we can expect multiple spills during the Montana section of the pipeline’s 50-year life expectancy.
Still, it would be hypocritical in many ways for this newspaper to oppose the construction of the pipeline when so much of the Billings area economy is dependent on the petroleum business, including our major refineries, which depend on many miles of pipeline.
The Keystone XL pipeline would carry the far lighter Bakken crude as well (serving to dilute the heavy bitumen crude from Canada), and the Bakken production is a linchpin of eastern Montana’s economy.
While the regulatory environment is a cost of doing business in the petroleum world, we understand the difficulty of stop-and-start-and-stop-again regulation.
We support the construction of this pipeline, with the caveat that significant safety controls — with sharper teeth than those previously exhibited by federal pipeline-safety regulators — be implemented to govern its operation. We urge our congressional delegation to work with the Biden administration to accomplish both things.
The Billings Gazette Editorial Board consists of President and Publisher Dave Worstell, Regional Editor David McCumber and Chief Photographer Larry Mayer.