Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Risks of the Pilgrim Pipeline—and the Risks of Not Having Pipelines

On the topic of the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline in New Jersey, a letter appeared in the N.J. Star-Ledger critical of the Star-Ledger’s editorial “Reflexive opposition to Pilgrim pipeline is misplaced.” For my analysis of that editorial, see my 5/21/15 post, “Climate Change or Not, Humans Need Reliable, Economical Energy—and the Pilgrim Pipeline.”

In her letter, Pilgrim Pipeline pique, Alice Piatek wrote:

I disagree with Sunday's Star-Ledger editorial that opposition to the Pilgrim Pipeline is unreasonable and a knee-jerk reaction because of a reflexive dislike of fossil fuels. Furthermore, I take exception to the statement that opposition to it is an irrational misfire in the overarching climate fight.

Quoting from Piatek’s letter, I left these comments:

“As the mania for building pipelines surges, so will the accidents and catastrophes. The editorial cited tragic and irreversible consequences. One of them is the recent pipeline spill from The North Dakota operations in the Yellowstone River.”

But, the Sunday Star-Ledger editorial cited by Piatek also noted that “nearly all of those incidents involved older infrastructure.” Piatek conveniently ignores this very pertinent fact. This doesn’t mean pipelines built with today’s state-of-the-art technologies are 100% without risk. But as Piatek also conveniently ignores, and as the editorial noted:

There are enough studies, notably from the Department of Transportation’s pipeline agency, that suggest pipelines are the safest form of energy transport -- especially when the technology is new.

If it’s 100% guarantees against risk Piatek is demanding, she is essentially demanding something impossible to man—infallibility and omniscience. On this “perfect safety” standard, nothing would ever get accomplished, and human beings would still be living in preindustrial poverty, danger, and filth, with all of the much bigger risks that involves. And that gets to the point: Did Piatek and like-minded pipeline opponents ever consider the risks of not having pipelines? Virtually every aspect of our lives depends on energy, and pipelines are an indispensable part of our energy infrastructure.

For example, Piatek proclaims, “I want to be able to continue to drink water from my tap and not have it kill me.” But did Piatek ever wonder why the water from her tap won’t kill her? It’s not because the watershed it originates from is clean, safe, or readily accessible. How would she like to have to scoop buckets of water from streams and shallow, hand-dug wells contaminated by dead and decaying animals and insects, animal, human, and fish waste, and infectious diseases, subject always to drought-induced water shortages? This is what people throughout pre-industrial times had to deal with and still do in undeveloped countries. That tap water comes to Pietek courtesy of extensive water purification and delivery systems powered by some reliable energy source like hydro, nuclear, and especially fossil fuels delivered largely through pipelines. Currently in America, there are 185,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines (not to mention the 305,000 miles of natgas pipelines and 2 million miles of local distribution natgas mains). Yet, there is no shortage of clean water in New Jersey or in America. Clearly, pipelines and clean water can and do coexist. Indeed, clean water is plentiful and available on demand. Most of us don’t give this amazing fact a second thought. But we should. Without this energy, our “watersheds” could not be turned into the clean water conveniently available at the twist of a knob in our homes, and you’d be unable “to continue to drink water from my tap and not have it kill me.”

But pipelines do much more that give us clean safe water. Pipelines deliver the fuel that powers far-away generating plants that electrifies our homes, workplaces, stores, agriculture, communication, and hospitals; the gasoline, heating oil, and natural gas that heats our homes and fills our car gas tanks; powers trains and trucks that deliver goods to our stores; etc., etc., etc. Piatek’s disdain for pipelines rings hollow next to the fact that she herself depends on pipelines to fill her needs and wants in myriad, unforeseen ways. And guess what? These pipelines pass through states and communities all across the country. What if every other community could stop the pipeline “mania” that fills her needs?

Yes, “water resources, land use, biodiversity, health, safety, and our property values” are valid concerns in varying degrees. But ignoring the wider context—notably the overarching fact that energy is vital to human well-being—does indeed amount to an unreasonable and irrational knee-jerk reaction to the pipeline.  This knee-jerk opposition is hypocritical. Talk of pipeline risk without considering the risks of not having the pipelines is grossly irresponsible. And smearing the continued building of pipelines that deliver the energy of life as a “mania” shows an utter disregard for the well-being of her fellow human beings.


When you think of pipelines carrying “dirty” fossil fuels, think of the clean water delivered to your fingertips.

Related Reading:

The ‘Jihad on Pipelines,’ New Jersey Front

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