There is much on the Internet right now about the proposed pipeline to transport dirty oil (bitumen) from Canada through my state of Nebraska to refineries in the southern United States.
Let me set the debate over the pipeline in an ethical context that is more inclusive than the economic and environmental issues currently dominating it.
I am indebted to the Earth First web page for their list of the "Top 10 Worst Man Made Environmental Disasters." Maybe they aren't objectively the ten worst, maybe They Are Not So Bad After All. But they do exist, they are recent, and they are bad enough for illustrative purposes simply because they are not hypothetical. There they are. .
1. Tennessee Coal Ash Spill
2. Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill
3, Libby, Montana Asbestos Contamination
4. Love Canal Toxic Dump
5. Three Mile Island Nuclear Meltdown
6. Picher, Oklahoma Lead Contamination
7. Anniston, Alabama PCB Poisoning
8. West Virginia/Kentucky Coal Sludge Spill
9. Great Pacific Garbage Patch
10. Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
Whether worst or not, they are man-made--though not intentional disasters like acts of sabotage, terror and war. They originated in the desire to create a public good or a profitable product, and came to pass because the deciders in every project were persuaded, or persuaded themselves, that everything was a-ok, there was nothing to worry about, the problems were manageable, and on and on.
I am not an authority on the various technologies involved, including the Keystone pipeline; but I am, in a modest way, an authority on the human predicament, which is ethical before it is environmental, economic, political, or anything else. From that perspective here are three observations.
When two sides are in contention, and both have hired experts speaking for them, the experts aren't experts; they are lobbyists and salesmen. Experts don't belong to anybody. They are on the side of truth. They agree on the facts they know, and are forthright about what they do not know and cannot predict.
Adversarial argument, as universal as it has become, is a worthless tool for discerning the truth. It becomes an evil tool, on an ethical par with a sneak attack, when lives and livelihoods are lost because those responsible to decide treat best-case projections as sure-fire predictions, or exchange long-term public good for short-term profit.
Corporately, individually, even nationally, human beings are patsies for a deal too good to pass up. Nebraska is understandably edgy. Back in the nineties, we nearly allowed a nuclear waste dump to be built in wetlands between the Missouri River and one of its tributaries, so that aradioactive leak would drain easily and harmfully down the Missouri into the Mississippi. At great cost, even sacrifice on the part of many citizens, Nebraska got out of the proposal, which any disinterested citizen could see was a bad deal. Now, twenty years later, Big Oil wants to run dirty oil through part of the Oglala aquifer, one of the largest and safest sources of clean water on the continent. Why be worried? They assure us they can handle it, there is nothing to worry about, this is different!
In response, I look at the list of Ten Worst Man-Made Disasters, imagine the deciders heard the same assurances in the 20th Century, and wonder whether the Keystone Pipeline will eventually join the list if it is approved as it now stands. If it does, the public purse will pay for the cleanup, while the investors scoop up the profits. Isn't that the American way?