Pipeline pros and cons debated at USD

Dr. Dennis Johnson discusses the level of urgency surrounding environmental problems with oil or tar sands in regard to oil pipelines as Dr. Howard Coker (left) and Dr. Benno Wymar (right) listen. The conversation took part as an International Forum at the University of South Dakota. (Photo by David Lias)

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, the same afternoon it was announced that the Obama administration rejected a bid to expand the Keystone pipeline, several university officials were debating the consequences of this and similar projects in Farber Hall.

Their statements were made to the opposition of some in the audience, including some representatives of the Sierra Club.

Retired economics professor Dr. Benno Wymar said there are approximately 150,000 miles of pipelines currently in the United States that see little or no trouble in terms of environmental problems, and that they offer one of the safest ways to transport oil.

"There are some oil spills that did take place, of which one is in the Yellowstone River. There was one also in Michigan that took between two and 12 hours to take care of," Wymar said.

Audience member Peter Carrels – a resident of Aberdeen and a member of the Sierra Club – said the Michigan oil spill was not minor, that it entailed 800,000 barrels of oil entering the Kalamazoo River.

Carrels said this could cause a number of serious environmental problems to the ecosystems in and along that river.

"That spill is still being disputed," he said.

Audience member Doug Maurstad of Alcester said that despite being only two years old, the Keystone pipeline already has seen leaks due in part to shoddy workmanship and low-grade Chinese steel.

One of these occurred in North Dakota and resulted in more than 500 barrels of tar sand leaking out, he said.

"It's not a case of if it's going to leak, but when it's going to leak, and we don't want it to leak here," Maurstad said.

Economics professor Dr. Dennis Johnson described tar sand as being a dirtier form of crude that contains more carbon.

"It's basically mined, dug, but to transport it through a pipe, what's done is to mix that with other elements, which reduces it to a consistency … so that the actual oil sent through the pipeline is not much different than the usual crude oil that goes through," he said.

Carrels classified the material flowing through the tar sand pipelines as being "very problematic" in that it is harder on pipeline joints and valves due to the level of quartzite it contains.

"We haven't figured out how to deal with this stuff," he said.

Johnson countered that potential problems could be negated through a carbon tax.

"From my perspective, there is a problem with environmentalists in general," Johnson said. "It seems to me that environmentalists often engage in scare tactics. 'Unless we engage in some sort of extremely dramatic action now, the world is in danger, and you must buy my answer.'"

Moderator Richard Muller responded, "Excuse the pun, but you don't think the oil companies are blowing as much smoke as the environmentalists in the opposite direction?"

Johnson replied that the oil companies make a "convenient whipping boy" for their opponents.

"They're only profitable because we want what they produce. If you didn't want it, if I didn't want it … their power dissipates," he said.

Johnson spoke of moving away from carbon-based fuels, but added, "That should be an orderly, market-type of process."

"It's hypocritical to think we can go off oil immediately, but we need to begin an expeditious transition sooner, not later," Carrels acknowledged.

Chemistry professor Howard Coker said the ultimate solution may lie in solar energy.

He added that even despite potential pipeline issues, most people would opt not to make a change in the way they currently live their lives in terms of energy consumption.

"As the cartoon (character) Pogo has said, 'We have discovered the enemy, and he is us,'" Coker said.

The conversation took place under the title "Stop Canadian Oil?" and was the latest in a series of International Forums held at the University of South Dakota.

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