The reasons for opposing TransCanada's Keystone XL proposal are as vast as the territory the pipeline aims to cover: climate change, a lack of proper environmental review, destruction of ecosystems, perpetuating our reliance on fossil fuels. But, according to NYT environment reporter Elizabeth Rosenthal, no objection has a hold on the popular imagination like the image of a massive metal pipe carrying raw crude oil across a pristine American landscape:
As energy people, the TransCanada executives were perhaps being overly rational about a reality that Americans seem determined to forget: Large-scale energy is typically produced in remote places and inevitably needs to be transported to the populated areas where it is used. That is a fact whether the energy comes in the form of "dirty" traditional fuels like coal or oil, or in the form of cleaner natural gas. It is true even if it comes in the guise of "green" electricity, generated by the sun or wind.
There is nothing particularly attractive -- or good for the environment -- about the things we use to transfer energy. But, as unappealing as pipelines, transmission lines, trains, and trucks may be, there are a necessary part of a plugged-in society. As Rosenthal writes, "Practically speaking, there is no energy equivalent of wireless."
And the energy transmission NIMBYism applies no matter what the type of energy:
Indeed, some of the most pitched energy battles being fought today involve not oil pipelines but "next generation" energy transport: the expansion of pipe networks for natural gas and the high-voltage transmission lines that connect large-scale wind and solar farms to population centers. And these systems are expanding rapidly as the United States shifts away from traditional fossil fuels.
In fact, a lack of transmission infrastructure is proving to be a hindrance on clean energy development. While states use tax breaks and other incentives to encourage the construction of wind farms and solar energy plants, there has been no corresponding boom in transmission infrastructure. According to energy researcher Alex Klein, a lack of transmission lines is "one of the most significant hurdles" to the growth of the domestic wind industry.
With no easy answers at the ready, it seems that in an increasingly plugged-in world, we are going to have to accept the idea of energy being transported across our backyard.
Photo: Power transmission lines are suspended from pylons in Kearny, N.J. (Steve Hockstein/Bloomberg News)