Digging Holes and Thinking Outside the Pipe

Image: Public domain image of Alaskan pipeline

“When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” – Will Rogers, entertainer, humorist, and newspaper columnist 1878-1935

As a nation we have dug ourselves into many holes. We may have thought we were digging foundations for progress, jobs, and economic growth. But we were actually digging pits that limited our thinking and options for the future. These mental and physical holes became barriers to real progress. Our continuing dependence on fossil fuels is a barrier to adopting clean, new technologies to combat climate change.

We now have the ability with solar and wind energy to move away from our oil and coal based economy. We can replace gasoline powered vehicles with clean electric ones. We can build more efficient electric mass transit. We can replace, or reduce, the number of coal and nuclear power plants with cleaner, safer renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. We can conserve and change our overly consumptive life styles.

To do this we have to reduce the fossil fuel infrastructure and replace it with green technology infrastructure. This will take time and money, but it is starting to happen. Every time someone buys an electric or hybrid electric car, installs solar panels, or builds an electric charging station, we move closer to a better future.

In the past, petroleum and natural gas were better than other fuels. In the 19th century, cities were dirty and awful places to live because of burning coal and wood. Cleaner burning fuel oil and natural gas were improvements. Gasoline cars were much cleaner, cheaper, and more convenient than the stench, manure, and limitations of horses. It was logical to adopt the new technologies. Now the time has come to move beyond the dirty, dangerous, polluting, petroleum based technologies of the twentieth century.

Part of the difficulty in adopting better technologies is the legacy of the old. Once you have invested in expensive infrastructure it is difficult, and costly, to dismantle or replace it. There are strong financial incentives to maintain the status quo instead of promoting innovation. The investments made over many years in power plants, oil refineries and pipelines commit us to high-carbon emissions in the future, even when alternative technologies are available.

This is the basic issue with the pipelines that cross Minnesota (line 3) and Wisconsin (line 5 and 6). Pipelines are part of the old infrastructure. Pipelines, because they pass though our communities, become a symbol of the old, dirty, climate altering technologies that need to be replaced. Opposing pipeline construction is a way to advocate for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and reducing the carbon emissions that are causing climate change.

This is especially the case with the Embridge pipelines which are transporting Canadian tar sands petroleum (actually a thick tar that must be diluted with toxic chemicals in order to pump it through a pipeline). Tar sand extraction generates 17 percent more carbon emissions than conventional crude oil. Tar sands processing is 15 times more costly and is more carbon intensive, destroying large areas of land, using more water, and creating more toxic waste than traditional crude oil production. It is the dirtiest possible way to get energy and a huge step backward in combating climate change.