The Keystone Pipeline And Lilliput

Today President Obama rejected a proposal to build the Keystone Pipeline. It is one of those decisions, I think, that carries a deeper message about our country, its leaders, and where we are headed.

The proposed pipeline would run 1,700 miles, carrying oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.  It was opposed by environmentalists, who hate the idea of a pipeline crossing the heartland and argue that it would invade sensitive environmental areas in Nebraska.  It was supported by business and labor unions, who say it would be like a colossal public works project — except the $7 billion cost wouldn’t be paid by the government, but by the company that wants to build the pipeline.

The pipeline issue posed a difficult political choice — so the Obama Administration punted and blamed Congress.  The State Department said that the denial was due to Congress imposing an unreasonable 60-day deadline on the Administration’s decision on the project.  Congress, of course, says the 60-day deadline was necessary because the Administration was dithering and proposed to delay any decision until after the 2012 election.  The story linked suggests that the Administration’s decision today was motivated by various carefully weighed political considerations.

The deeper message, I think, is that we increasingly seem to be a country that can’t get things done.  In my view, approving the pipeline makes sense.  It would create lots of jobs during these tough times.  It would inject huge sums into our economy.  It would allow us to get more oil from a safe source, rather than relying on oil from more volatile areas of the world.  Given Iran’s latest saber-rattling talk about closing the Straits of Hormuz, the latter point may be the most important point of all.  (And don’t talk to me about focusing on alternative renewable sources of energy — the reality is that we need oil now and will need it for the foreseeable future.  Our energy needs aren’t going to be met by the magical ministrations of Tankerbelle, the petroleum fairy.)

Obviously, environmental issues must be considered in deciding where the pipeline should go — but why should they quash it altogether?  It already is designed to run through the sparsely populated  central region of the United States.  We need to remember that we live in a country that is criss-crossed and tunneled through with pipelines, power lines, generators, underground storage tanks, highways, railroad, and other delivery systems.  I’m confident that the experts can find an appropriate location for this pipeline and install the protections needed to make it as safe as is reasonably practicable in an uncertain world.

America used to be fabulous at this type of massive project, like the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, or many others.  Those projects had broad political support because they promoted development and commerce.  Does anyone doubt that Democratic Party icons like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson would approve this pipeline?  Conversely, does anyone think the interstate highway system could have been built so speedily if the current regulatory morass that has grown up around consideration of environmental issues existed in the ’50s and ’60s?  Consider that, the next time you drive on our interstates and see the hills that have been sheared off or tunneled through so that you can get from point A to point B at 65 mph.

So now we’ll wring our hands, and hire consultants, and do impact studies for months and years more — all the while leaving people without a job unemployed when they could be working, leaving our economy moribund when it could be helped, and leaving our reliance on energy from volatile regions unchecked when it could be reduced.  Does any of that really make any sense for our country?

America has become like Gulliver, the slumbering giant tied down by thousands of Lilliputian restraints and political considerations and regulations and standards and policies and statutory notice and comment requirements, to the point where it is unable to move.  We need to break those ties and start moving again.

Pain In The Butt

This story about efforts by environmentalists to convince Americans to buy toilet paper made from recycled fibers is pretty hilarious. Americans want the toilet paper that they buy for use at their homes to be super-soft. Toilet paper makers oblige by producing products made largely from the pulp of old trees, which have the longer fibers that produce softer tissue. Environmentalists object to felling “old-growth” trees for this unseemly purpose, because such trees help to convert carbon dioxide and old-growth forests provide the habitat for bears and migratory birds.

The subject matter of the story, of course, lends itself to humor. But note that the chief executive of a leading manufacturer of recycled toilet paper seems to contend that Americans like softness only because they have been mesmerized by marketing campaigns! I can assure him that, to the contrary, for most Americans the keen desire for bathroom tissue softness is the product of harsh experience.

And consider this the next time you are in a position to personally assess the softness of toilet paper — those in the industry apply three softness criteria: surface smoothness, bulky feel, and “drapability.”