Rerouting the Debate

In recent months, the ongoing debate over how to meet the nation’s growing energy needs has veered sharply into a potentially divisive argument that pits jobs creation and energy independence against environmental protection.

The energy industry and its vocal supporters in Washington have argued that the U.S. must move full speed ahead on developing oil and gas resources now within reach in huge North American finds like the Marcellus Shale formation, a natural gas repository that stretches from West Virginia through the middle of Pennsylvania and into a wide swath of New York State.

You’ve probably seen some of the industry’s recent TV commercials, which feature customers at a farmer’s market cradling fresh-picked vegetables while a voice-over assures all of us that hydraulic fracturing (better known as “fracking”) — blasting water, sand and toxic chemicals into underground rock formations to unlock the natural gas they contain — won’t harm the turnips.

These commercials don’t mention the very real risks that must be considered as gas wells are drilled deeper and stretched vertically and horizontally to get at remote deposits. As reported in this space, a single well can result in a million gallons of wastewater laced with carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium. The TV ads also neglect to mention that the entire watershed that services New York City lies within the Marcellus formation.

So it was very refreshing to see a third path to energy independence placed front and center this week by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and the Nebraska State Legislature.

Nebraska has been in the crosshairs of the proposed $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry up to 700,000 barrels of crude oil each day from Alberta’s tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast in Texas. The developer, TransCanada, has been seeking federal approval for a pipeline route that would cross six states, including Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Of course, TranCanada chose the shortest route, one that sends the big Keystone XL pipe directly through the Sandhills region of the Cornhusker State.

Since all of the states on the proposed route are on the “Red” side of the political ledger — usually cheerleaders for the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd — no doubt TransCanada thought their proposed path for Keystone XL wouldn’t get any local pushback.

We’ll give our friends in Canada the benefit of the doubt and say they didn’t notice that Keystone XL would plow through the heart of the Ogallala aquifer, a key water source for eight states, most of which is situated in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Gov. Heineman noticed. Not so fast, he said.

But it was after Nebraska threw up the red flag that things really got interesting.

Instead of simply declaring “Not In My Back Yard” and marshaling armies of lawyers to block the project, Gov. Heineman and the Nebraska Legislature chose the middle ground: They asked TransCanada to reroute the big pipe. The crude oil would still pass through Nebraska on its way to Texas, but it would take a bit longer to get there and more pipe would have to be built. It would no longer pass through the Ogallala aquifer.

Then something truly groundbreaking occurred: TransCanada voluntarily agreed to reroute the pipeline.

Nebraska lawmakers did not hesitate to take “yes” for an answer. On Wednesday, the state’s single-house Legislature voted 45-0 to authorize the Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality to conduct an expedited independent review of possible new routes the Keystone XL pipeline could take through the state.

The federal government apparently was caught off guard by the sudden detente between Nebraska and the energy giant from the north.

In the months before Nebraska voiced its concerns, the U.S. State Department was fast-tracking its review of the Keystone Project — fast-tracking as in having the review conducted by Cardno ENTRIX, a Houston-based environmental contractor that has identified TransCanada as a major client for other projects.

When Nebraska raised its objections, the State Department hastily announced it would delay its decision on the transnational pipeline until at least 2013, conveniently postponing a potential controversy until after the 2012 presidential election.

This is just a guess, but since Nebraska may have solved the problem for them, perhaps the Feds now will change their mind and green-light the big pipe before the big election. This way, a certain fellow on the ballot (hint: he has a great jump shot and a killer smile) might just be able to take credit for a huge energy win that suddenly has a nice green cachet attached to it. Ya think?

We prefer to affix the credit for this most reasonable solution where it belongs — with Gov. Dave Heineman and the great state of Nebraska.