As plans for the Keystone XL pipeline faltered over the last six months, its route through a pristine aquifer in Nebraska proved to be its fatal political flaw. Environmental groups had raised numerous other serious objections: Building the pipeline would lead to a rise in climate changing gases; its environmental review was tainted by conflicts of interest; extracting oil from Canadian oil sands was destroying precious ecosystems and boreal forest.
But, in the popular mind, none of these concerns stuck like the vision of a big metal pipe full of thick crude coursing under America’s pristine heartland. When President Obama himself finally denied the Keystone XL its permit last month, he focused on the 1,000-mile pipeline’s passage through the delicate Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer, suggesting he might accept an alternative route.
Officials of TransCanada, the Canadian pipeline builder, seemed perplexed by the traction this particular argument gained, as they toured the United States late last year trying to salvage their ailing $7 billion project. Displaying a map showing the intricate web of pipelines that already crisscross the United States, they noted that the country has 2.5 million miles of pipeline. TransCanada’s prior oil pipeline into the United States – smaller than Keystone XL, but not small by any stretch of the imagination – had elicited barely a murmur of protest.
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 are pipelines, trains, trucks and high-voltage transmission lines. None of them are pretty, and all have environmental drawbacks. But if you want to drive your cars, heat your homes and watch TV, you will have to choose among these unpalatable options. Practically speaking, there is no energy equivalent of wireless.
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.
“You can’t get around this transportation problem, but people don’t want to acknowledge that – it’s a really big problem that we’ll have to face,” said Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The more you move to transmission lines that cross lots of states, the more you’ll have the same trouble as you did with Keystone XL.”
Indeed, shortly after President Obama put a halt to Keystone XL last month, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy of Jersey City called on the president to intervene to stop a natural gas pipeline planned for northern New Jersey. Mr. Healy called the pipeline, intended to transport natural gas from rural Pennsylvania to downtown Manhattan, “far more insidious” than Keystone, citing concerns about safety and damage to New Jersey’s ecosystems.
In central Texas, a coalition of environmentalists, conservationists and landowners is similarly fighting against the planned construction of high-voltage power lines to bring electricity from the huge wind farms of West Texas to the urban corridor of Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
“This is beautiful country with huge heritage ranches, amazing biodiversity, endangered species and the headwaters of important rivers,” said Christy Muse, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance, a group dedicated to preserving the resources and heritage of central Texas. “A lot of people jumped on the renewable bandwagon – it’s a sexy agenda. But this is a special landscape, and does this minimal contribution to the grid outweigh the degradation these lines impose?”
Her group wants power companies to use smaller towers, employ routes that parallel highways rather than cut across pasture and better compensate landowners. Opponents of transmission lines worry about the effect of huge latticed towers on wide-open vistas, as well as the impact of electromagnetic fields on wildlife and human health. Studies show an increased incidence of some cancers in children who have been exposed to electrical fields typical of those close to the lines.
But energy policy experts say that the United States must find a way to erect the infrastructure it needs to move power – despite the obstacles and objections. “There is always risk associated with the transport of energy, but you have to do it,” said Jackie Forrest, a senior energy analyst with IHS Cera in Calgary, Alberta. “You try to minimize the risk.”
If there was no reasonable transport plan, she said that a valuable commodity like oil would somehow flow to where it was needed (and could be sold) – perhaps by even less palatable routes. She pointed out that without Keystone XL more oil would be imported from the Middle East, which would travel farther, involve high shipping costs and produce double the transport-related carbon emissions as ships crossed the ocean.
Likewise, in the Midwest, where new oil discoveries in North Dakota’s Bakken field have exceeded pipeline capacity, producers this year are sending large quantities of oil to the Gulf of Mexico by rail for refining. (Keystone XL, which was to have run through the region, was expected to alleviate the bottleneck.) “That increases costs, increases greenhouse gas emissions and also has the potential for crashes and spills,” Ms. Forrest said.
Using renewable energy to power machines and cars may be better for the planet, but will not obviate that necessity to transport power – and it may prove even harder to move politically. Until Keystone XL, pipelines were generally placed with little public outcry since they traveled underground and had little impact on scenery or property values. But high-voltage transmission lines provoke inevitable protests.
The Sunrise Powerlink, a high-voltage line that will connect wind and solar projects in California’s Imperial Valley with San Diego, faced a procession of legal challenges since it was first approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2008.
In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York proposed creating an “energy highway system” of high-voltage lines to bring power from wind and hydropower projects upstate and in Quebec all the way to New York City. He might recall that a similar transmission system, New York Regional Interconnect, was proposed in 2006, only to be withdrawn after four years of court battles with residents and environmentalists in the Hudson Valley.
But as states are encouraging the construction of wind and solar power plants with incentives and tax breaks, there has got to be a corresponding boom in transmission line planning and construction, said Alex Klein, chief of research at IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass. “It’s both absolutely necessary and extremely contentious, “ he said. “People want renewables, but nobody wants transmission.”
He said that the lack of transmission lines to get electricity out of remote windy areas in Texas, the Midwest and Minnesota was “one of the most significant hurdles” to the growth of the domestic wind industry. Some wind farms have even had to curtail production because they can’t move the electricity they generate. The most cost-effective wind farms are in desolate areas where the wind howls and land is cheap, meaning they are the farthest from users. Burying high-voltage electricity lines underground is technically feasible but extremely expensive and makes maintenance extremely difficult.
Perhaps the answer is simply that in an increasingly crowded powered-on world, we’re all going to have to accept that Governor Cuomo’s so-called energy highway is likely to traverse our backyard.
“There will always be people who don’t like these things near them,” said Mr. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I live on Second Avenue, where they’re building a new subway, and it’s been really noisy for a long time now. But at some point we have to function as a society rather than as individuals, in order to get the things we need built.”
Elisabeth Rosenthal is a reporter and blogger on environmental issues for The New York Times.
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