In a recent Sunday talk show, House Speaker John Boehner described the Keystone XL oil pipeline as “the epitome of a shovel ready job project.” Though it’s tempting to dismiss that characterization out of hand in light of a Cornell University study demonstrating that the pipeline could eliminate more jobs than it creates, the concept of a perfect construction project is not so easily dismissed. It can serve as the catalyst for a broader discussion of the factors that should be taken into account when we go about shoehorning major new infrastructure into our crowded, contentious and warming world.
A great example of a shovel ready job project
To be fair, Speaker Boehner should get a bit of leeway with “epitome” since he was speaking off the cuff. In the plain sense of the word, he would be claiming that the Keystone XL pipeline is the perfect example of a construction project that is ready to start virtually at a moment’s notice (that’s the ready part of shovel ready). However, the pipeline can’t start at a moment’s notice, or even any time soon, since its route through Nebraska was changed late in the permitting process. The new route must be assessed and a new construction application must be submitted, so for now let’s just say the Speaker simply meant to say that the pipeline is a great example of a shovel ready job project.
Making room for new energy infrastructure
When you lower the bar from perfect to great, then you’ve got a more realistic platform for judging different kinds of “shovel ready” projects. If job creation is your goal, that could involve any number of programs, not necessarily activities that involve moving dirt from one place to another, but for now we can stick to comparisons between different kinds of energy-related infrastructure projects.
That doesn’t mean renewable energy projects gets a free pass, though. Far from it. Virtually every major energy infrastructure project, whether petroleum-related or not, is by nature, disruptive. That applies even to relatively remote projects such as the vast solar arrays and wind farms that have been popping up in western deserts. Even a meticulously planned solar or wind energy project can create an industrial presence on previously pristine landscapes, alter habitats, or require the relocation of some species. And where the project involves eminent domain proceedings, that species includes people.
Complications for the Keystone XL pipeline
In this light, the Keystone XL project comes out looking a little less than great. It will impinge on landscapes, alter habitats, and require eminent domain proceedings, just like many other major energy projects, but it also carries some extra risks since it raises the potential for water and soil contamination in farmlands, recreation areas and protected habitats. To complicate things even more, Keystone’s unavoidable and potential impacts will not occur primarily at a single site, as they would if the project was an individual facility such as a power plant, wind farm or solar array that connects to existing transmission lines. The Keystone impacts will occur at any number of locations along the pipeline’s 2,000 mile route through six states, all of which have granted eminent domain rights to the project’s Canadian owner, TransCanada.
National security and shovel ready job projects
Despite these factors, if the Keystone XL pipeline had been proposed during World War II when the U.S. was ramping up its industrial base, you could probably make a good argument for the worthiness or at least the necessity of the project (assuming the oil would go to serve the U.S. or its allies). However, that was then, this is now. The U.S. defense sector is not urgently demanding more petroleum. It is going in a different direction altogether.
The Department of Defense is transitioning to alternative energy and advanced energy efficiency projects in order to buffer itself from the budgetary vagaries and supply chain insecurities of the global petroleum market, and to reduce its dependence on fuel convoys in field operations. That policy holds true regardless of whether the oil is produced on U.S. soil, by a close ally, or by any other country.
Shovel ready job projects that support our troops
Considering the Defense Department’s alternative energy policy, Speaker Boehner’s singular focus on the Keystone XL pipeline rings a little hollow. DoD already has numerous energy-related, shovel ready job projects in the works, some of which are still in the planning stages and others of which already have shovels in the ground.
Just a few recent examples are the Navy’s massive new 13.8 megawatt solar power installation at Naval Air Station China Lake in California, solar installations for the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Fort Bliss in Colorado, and upgrades to Fort Buchanan and eleven other Army facilities in Puerto Rico that will include wind turbines, solar panels, high efficiency LED (light emitting diode) lighting, and energy conservation systems.
What “our troops” look for in a great shovel ready job project
The Army’s Stand To! leadership newsletter offers a straightforward and holistic assessment of the need for site-generated alternative energy and conservation in terms of national security, overseas operations and the protection of community health on the home front:
“Energy security today is operationally necessary and financially prudent. Army installations, tactical operations and soldiers’ training all require secure and uninterrupted access to energy. We must ensure our soldiers and their families today – and in the future – have the land, water, and air resources they need to train; quality services and reach back capabilities to deploy; a safe and healthy infrastructure and environment in which to live and effectively work; and the support of the local communities and the American people.”
Assess the Keystone XL pipeline from this perspective, and let’s just say that “epitome” is not the first word that comes to mind.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.