Magstadt: Natural Gas, Prairie Dog Towns, And Magical Thinking

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On April 25, faculty experts from Colorado State University were in Washington, D.C., to give    Congressional staffers a briefing on natural gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing. Former Governor Bill Ritter, Jr., who is currently the director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at CSU led the panel. The briefing, called "Getting Natural Gas Right" focused on finding technologies and policies aimed at the best – most environmentally sound – ways to extract the stuff.
When it comes to fossil fuel and carbon emissions, there's simply no way to avoid controversy, but CSU as an institution is understandably at pains not to offend any- body's sensibilities: “As an academic and scientific enterprise, Colorado State does not take any side in the debate over gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, instead preferring the role of the neutral broker," said CSU's VP for Research.
No doubt inveterate sorts on both sides will say such a stand is gutless. But given the curdling emotions over fracking and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, to say nothing of the conflicting values at stake (economy vs. environment), it's not a lack of moral courage that explains CSU's diffi- dence. It's prudence – CSU depends heav- ily on external funding. In 2011, CSU's research expenditures were $330 million – ranking second in the nation for public uni- versities without a medical school.
In contrast, The New York Times makes
no bones about where it stands on the Keystone proj- ect.    To be clear, a Canadian energy company called TransCanada wants to build a 1,700-mile-long pipeline from the oil-rich tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries. TransCanada has already built one such conduit which began pump- ing 435,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil to Illinois last year. The new pipeline would potentially transport an additional 700,000- 800,000 bpd through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Nebraska of all places has been called "ground zero" for the anti-pipeline move- ment. On April 18, hundreds of people, notably a bunch of Nebraska farmers and ranchers not known for joining the ranks of political protesters, showed up in Grand Island for a State Department hearing on the pipeline. The crowd was overwhelm- ingly against the project.
When's the last time anyone can remem- ber the editorial board of The New York Times and rural Nebraskans being on the same side of anything? Me neither. So what's it all about, Alfie?
The Times finds the State Department's draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) on the XL pipeline "dis- tasteful" because of its "air of inevitability." But wait! The Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) issued a let- ter on April 22, which takes issue with the State Department's analysis. Apart from the unfortunate acronym (to the eye's ear DSEIS sounds a lot like a "disease"), the
report has more holes in it than the average prairie dog town. (By the way, the largest recorded prairie dog town covered some 25,000 square miles, according to National Geographic. That town, in Texas, was home to an estimated four hundred million prairie dogs.)
It turns out there's a considerable differ- ence in the level of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by Alberta's energy-intensive heavy-oil production process compared with conventional meth- ods. Although the State Department acknowledges this fact, EPA chides the report for giving too little attention to the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases over the next 50 years, as well as the dangers posed to the vital Ogallala aquifer underly- ing part of the pipeline’s planned route (pipes leak with alarming regularity).
Question: Since when has any Washington politician thought farther ahead than the next election? Seriously, it's a big problem, not for me personally because there's still enough gas, oil, water, and breathable air (at least in these parts) to last as long as I'll be around. But what
about my kids? Yup, they could still be around 50 years from now. How about grandbabies born or waiting under a toad- stool? Assuming nothing Armageddon-y happens between now and 2063, they will definitely be around.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, the XL business. Above all, the Times edi- torial objects to what it says is "a flawed assumption that distorts all of [the State Department's] analyses: that 'oil sands crude will find a way to market with or without' the Keystone pipeline. This is a kind of magical thinking."
Magical thinking? Why won't "other pipelines will be built or rail traffic will be ramped up" if President Obama rejects the pipeline? It's madness to imagine that TransCanada or Ottawa will walk away from an oil bonanza. Think of a recent example of a government – any government – stand- ing in the way of an energy company drilling, fracking, or doing whatever it takes to get the precious stuff out of the ground. "For a variety of reasons, not least the cost of rail transportation, the E.P.A. has serious doubts," says the Times editorial.
Getting natural gas right – now that's what I call magical thinking.
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at