John Havelock: Whether foolish or calculated, fight against Keystone pipeline is wrong

The fight over the Keystone Pipeline authorization renews memories of the fight over authorization of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) in the early '70s. Led by The Friends of the Earth, then the most intense environmental organization, TAPS opponents argued that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was incomplete since it did not give sufficient study to an alternative route following the Canadian, Mackenzie River upstream, thence to the United States. A simple reconnaissance review of this "alternative" route showed it to be an environmental nightmare, crossing tributary after tributary in crossings at risk of a spill into valued waters, while the TAPS line had few river crossings most of far less magnitude. Thus began Alaskan's education in the purposes and tactics of radical environmentalism.

This criticism of the EIS was intended simply to impose delay and, through endless legal wrangling, to kill the project. After more than a year of fruitless court proceedings, mostly concerning the width of the right-of-way, TAPS supporters were forced to seek relief from Congress, a monumental task. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, including a national gasoline shortage, advocates of TAPS, including the State of Alaska speaking for an overwhelming majority of its citizens, managed to squeeze a right-of-way bill through Congress that bypassed the National Environmental Policy Act.

NEPA and its EIS legal handles still constitute a formidable weapon to stop projects with significant potential environmental consequences, a standard omitting few projects. Sometimes there is reason to applaud an EIS challenge, but of NEPA's problems, the cost of delay and legal wrangling rank highest. Even the most doable projects are so burdened.

As it turned out, the only substantial change in TAPS to meet environmental issues was to lay more pipe above ground than previously planned. Environmentalist pressure did not bring this about. Historically, much of the engineering of pipelines has been done, not through anticipatory studies, but on the ground, looking at very specific physical circumstances, which surely makes sense, given the ability to quickly adapt in this form of construction.

The Egan Administration, which oversaw the substantial Alaska state interests in the TAPS construction was no slouch on environmental interests, having founded Environmental Conservation as a department of state government, heading it up with Max Brewer, an Alaskan but also a world renowned scientist. But like all institutions and persons involved in the TAPS project, the Egan Administration found the procedures created by NEPA far too elaborate in their ability to delay and thereby kill worthwhile projects.

This might not have been as big a problem were it not that the almost always unspoken objective of the philosophical extremists of the environmental movement was to get America and the world off of the use of oil at any cost, at any opportunity. The Friends of the Earth had to know that a Mackenzie River route for TAPS was little short of ridiculous, but to fight for it made sense if the effect would be to kill TAPS.

Various companies in the oil industry are supporting the completion of a link in the complex of oil pipelines that crisscross the United States that would bring crude oil from Alberta to refineries in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. This pipeline, called "Keystone," has already been rerouted once to avoid land with an enhanced preservation value. But the extremists have roused environmental sympathizers across the board to oppose this line under any circumstances, creating a serious political problem for President Obama.

Keystone, from a short and medium range perspective, is a pro-American and pro-environment project. It will virtually complete the long sought goal of continental self-sufficiency in petroleum products. The refineries taking Keystone oil show every sign of filling their capacity from this line and turning down tanker imports now coming from Nigeria. Alaskans, of all people, know the relative safety of Canadian over Nigerian production and of pipelines over tankers. Extreme hardliners, focusing on killing any oil related project, have sold well-intentioned environmentalists a bill of goods. We must continue the fight for environmental protection but Keystone is the wrong battlefield.

John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general. He lives in Anchorage.