Keystone Pipeline: NIMBY

December 31, 2011

Lately I've been wondering if the Keystone Pipeline isn't more of a NIMBY than anything else. NIMBY stands for Not In My Backyard, and is typically a reference to well-off individuals and communities decrying the building of some unwanted facility "in their backyards" – that is, just down the street or in the general vicinity. For example, in St. Paul, MN there has been an outcry over plans for an electricity-generating incinerator on the edge of the neighborhood in which I used to live. Now, that is a blue collar neighborhood, not particularly well-off. A classic NIMBY situation is where the well-funded are able to fend-off development, pushing it to some location where the project's opposition are not so well funded. Thus, the NIMBY-effect becomes a matter of eco-justice: the poor end up saddled with the polluting plant, though the rich derive at least as much benefit from the project.

The opposition to the Keystone Pipeline is centered on environmental concerns. From what I have seen, they are generally well-founded concerns: do we really want to promote the oil sands projects in Canada? Do we want a pipeline running through sensitive areas of the U.S.? Should we be allowing further development of infrastructure for a system (oil/petrol/gas) that needs to be retired due to the various pollutants for which it is responsible?

These are all incredibly important questions. But here is another question: if we don't use this oil, from whence will we get it? After all, we're still stuck with our cars. I drive most of my miles in a Prius, trying to minimize my destructive ways. But the gasoline I'm using is still destructive. We need to be reducing our overall energy consumption, drastically. Conservation has to be a top priority across the world, even more important than developing renewable energy sources. In the meantime we're still using oil. And I'm guessing that the regulations in the U.S. and Canada make this particular project far safer, and do far more to mitigate the potential negative environmental impact, than pumping more oil off the coast of Brazil or in Nigeria.

Many Americans are rightly afraid of the environmental impact of a potential pipeline break. But are they just as worried about the impact of recent spills in those two countries, for example? Current headlines: Brazil Oil Regulator Fines Chevron for Third Time for Spill; Shell says Nigeria oil spill contained. Let us evaluate the alternatives, and let's ask ourselves: is the attempt to shut down the Keystone Pipeline project just, given our continued use of oil products in the United States? Or is it in fact a large-scale example of an eco-injustice NIMBY hue-and-cry?

We must get serious about reducing our consumption of oil. But our money and the national debate should be on the big picture, and on the local picture (that is, transportation infrastructure). Perhaps letting the Keystone Pipeline move forward would be a potent reminder of this, and a reminder that, in a just-world, the rich shouldn't be allowed to push their dirty business onto the poor.