The XL Pipeline: Jonesing for energy

The XL Pipeline: Jonesing for energy

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"Boom," the new e-book by Tony Horwitz. Right: Deborah Zetterberg of Menemsha shares an environmental story with Mr. Horwitz. — Photo by Betty Burton

“BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey Along the Keystone XL Pipeline,” by Tony Horwitz. Byliner Inc., January 2014. Only available as e-book, available at,, and other electronic publishers. 113 pages, prices range from $3 to $5.

“BOOM” is an electronic mini-book by Tony Horwitz about the Keystone XL pipeline in Canada. The XL needs approval from the Obama administration to begin snaking 2,200 miles south from Alberta, carrying bituminous crude oil to U.S. refineries in Texas. The president’s decision is imminent.

Mr. Horwitz is not a policy wonk but a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who logged 4,000 miles tracking the XL pipeline to talk to pipeline workers, executives, and people in XL’s path in Canada and in the U.S.

He’s produced a rich narrative of the human condition and a clear perspective on a policy debate of enormous world economic, political, and environmental consequence. So this is an important read for several reasons.

We have a lack of transparency in government and corporations. Special interest groups on both sides of an issue enthusiastically provide us with voluminous amounts of disinformation that make comprehension difficult. We give up.

The opinion that resonated most with this reader came from an offbeat and articulate oil field worker: “I don’t give much of a [expletive], and nobody I know does, either, because this industry is giving me a future, even if it’s a short one and we’re all about to toast together.”

Mr. Horwitz has taken us to the people and the places where the issue is playing out in real time. And he couches it in a zesty, entertaining story featuring often-wacky frontier personalities.

I learned that the Alberta oil sands a few hundred miles north of Calgary are the third-largest in the world, including the Mideast, South America, and Africa, and that removing the goopy oil from the earth leaves the land like a lunar landscape. Two tons of sand produces one barrel of oil. And it’s hardy stuff. Essentially, it’s like the tar on your driveway. Native Americans used it au natural to make their canoes watertight.

Wait a minute. If it’s that solid and water resistant, what happens if it spills? The Valdez spill is a day at the beach, excuse the metaphor. The canoe story is a simple explanation of fact that I can understand. I’ll pass on the white papers, thanks.

You want some concise perspective? “To boosters, this bonanza represents a steady stream of ‘ethical oil’ from Canada rather than ‘conflict oil’ from less friendly and stable suppliers in the Middle East and elsewhere. To detractors, this same oil spells the end of the planet,” Mr. Horwitz writes.

Mr. Horwitz is a reporter and he has done an extraordinary job of telling the story through the voices of people who are working the oilfields and in communities that are impacted now or shortly will be if the pipeline comes through their neighborhood. He pays particular attention to farmers in the Dakotas and in Montana and Nebraska where an abundant aquifer that literally runs a couple of feet beneath their farmlands.

The ancient proverb, “Long after all the other sins are old, avarice remains young,” seems to apply in the oilfield boomtowns. Men who spent their lives at minimum wage are making $100,000 to $200,000 a year. Money has lost its value to them. A hard-working stripper reveals she can take home $9,000 a week from the bar. Room rents in the western plains wilderness rival Island waterfront rentals in August.

While it is easy to take the high moral ground here, Mr. Horwitz reminds us that the American addiction to oil-based comfort is the root cause of projects like Keystone XL, one of many on the boards in Canada and the U.S. An uncomfortable truth: Americans are four percent of the world’s population and consume 22 percent of its energy. Two-thirds of us want the Keystone XL pipeline, pollsters say. We pay a different kind of stripper, perhaps.

On the other hand, Mr. Horwitz observed yahoos in John Deere caps and camo holding hands with Native Americans against the pipeline, erasing generations of enmity and prejudice. Though he does not personally favor of the pipeline, “BOOM” reads like a news report, not a manifesto. His opinion is that the pipeline is going to happen soon unless the process is slowed. He told a largely anti-pipeline crowd at a discussion group Wednesday, March 12 at the Vineyard Haven Library that time is an ally for opponents because the building season is short in sub-arctic Canada and a missed season would allow for new developments in the fast-changing energy business. For example, the cost of pulling the oil tar out of the ground is economically viable if oil costs $90 a barrel, but at $70 a barrel? Not so much.

We also learn that whether or not the pipeline is built, America will still become the third-largest oil producer in the world. Whaaat? That led me to think the energy issue, that like many policy issues in this country, is something I know next to nothing about it. Many of us don’t. Why is that, do you suppose?

Read “BOOM.” You’ll like it and you’ll get wicked smaht.


  1. nice to see someone that wants to look at the actual facts about this project. As the first responder here, I would like to ask that future commenters leave their one liners behind and take a look at this one.
    I will put a few facts up to begin with, and we can go from there.

    This pipeline will create 50 permanent jobs in the United States.

    Most of the oil from this project will be shipped to Asia.

    The pipeline crosses over North Americas largest ancient aquifer ( the Ogallala).

    Pipelines leak, are vulnerable to catastrophic failure from earthquakes, terrorism, and human error to name a few.

    It takes one gallon of oil to produce and transport 3 gallons of oil to market with this project –the industry average is 11.

    This is oil that is not produced in the United States.

    The full scale of the deposits there would require the destruction of 54,000 sq mi of boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs)– That is about the size of the state of new York. or the country of Greece.

    Obviously, I am choosing which facts to present here, and I have a bias towards not destroying the water that millions of people depend on in the heartland of the United States, or contributing to the deteriorating state of a stable climate.

    I would like to hear more facts– please, no comments about how wealthy Al Gore is or “Obama’s a communist” comments..

    How about presenting some facts to support your argument one way or another?

    Google before you write.


    1. Something that made me spit coffee when I read it a year ago, TransCanada claiming its pipes don’t leaks. Okay, the pipes don’t leak, how about the joint wields and gaskets in the pumping stations?

      Also, I read TransCanada keeps getting sued because of spills in Canada. I suspect running a pipeline across another country would have challenges for those discovering their aquifer was ruined. Apologies, but I can’t find the bookmark. I’ll keep looking.

    2. Point One: no one cares about the “permanent jobs’ of the pipeline construction. We care about the permanent jobs of more locally refined oil.
      Point Two: Where did you find that nonsense? We want that oil!
      Point Three: The pipeline plans have already diverted the pipeline away from the aquifer.
      I’m not going to go on :)

      1. As far as I can tell, people that are for this pipeline don’t care about anything other than getting the oil. I think the junkie analogy is appropriate. They don’t care about their community, their families, or their children. Just get the fix.
        And there has been no compromise about changing the route of the pipeline yet.

      2. By the way, I find that “nonsense” in publications that present the facts about this project. Do you think I am wrong about any of my facts ?
        Accurate facts are not “nonsense”.

  2. Perhaps you might also research some other facts about Obama supporters who are XL Pipeline opponents who have confilcts of interests with their investments in competing pipelines.

    1. I am sure that when this kind of money is kicking around, there are all sorts of financial “conflicts of interest ” that filter information through the lens that fits your financial benefit. Is it a conflict of interest to be for it because you have a financial investment in trans Canada already ? Or some interest in the refineries on the gulf coast, or in a shipping co. that would transport the refined oil to Asia?
      Please don’t tell me there were no big bush supporters that would have made a lot of money had the Alaskan wilderness drilling went forward.
      If you find something illegal going on, please let me know, but really, so what if some Obama supporters own part of a competing pipe line. ?
      It’s likely that some Boener supporters have a conflict of interest because or their involvement with some company that will prosper if it’s built.
      Lets not do the usual “Obama bad” routine. If you are for this pipeline, please tell me why.

  3. To suggest needles and addiction as a corollary to oil and gas use is perverse. There is nothing wrong in using our natural resources for self sufficiency and to protect us from middle east blackmail. It is the regulators and EPA and left wing environmentalist groups who don’t want growth and attempt to needlessly frighten everyone with misinformation. Luddites want us to ride bicycles and live like the third world instead of harvesting our resources for the benefit of many. Oil and gas has lifted millions out of poverty worldwide and all the leftists want us to use is inefficient and government subsidized wind, solar, and other quackery that doesn’t work and makes no economic sense. We should be drilling and fracking and using nuclear energy to export and to lower our debt and to use as a foreign policy tool against thugs like Putin and Assad and the Ayatollah. The Climate change red herring is a BIG LIE foisted upon us while increasingly we find errors and lies and misinformation on measurements and of a stall in warming in the last 15 years which everyone except MV’ers now know.

        1. well thank you for the genuine reply.

          I would have to agree with you that shipping by rail has a higher failure rate than shipping by pipeline if you look at it as a percentage of product spilled. In fact , in 2013 nearly one out of every 100,000 gallons shipped by train was spilled.

          but, the list of pipeline spills is also impressive

          Pipeline spills also have the potential to be larger and less controllable, therefore having more catastrophic potential.

          So the word “danger” is open to interpretation.

          It seems that either way is fraught with some serious and nearly inevitable bad consequences.
          Digging a canal into there and transporting by ship would be too costly, as would flying it out on cargo planes.

          I think if the pipeline is not allowed to go through, it just might put a damper on the size of the tar sands project, as it will be too costly to ship by rail.
          My point is it’s just an all around bad idea to tear up the forest and try to get this stuff to market.
          I think the cost far outweigh the benefits.
          More fuel efficient cars, better insulated buildings, and a shift to cost effective led bulbs would save more energy than can be produced there.
          why take the risk at all ?
          And again, thanks for the genuine reply.

          1. Until they give me an electric car that is feasible and affordable, or until they give me gas at less than $3 a gallon, keep the oil flowing please. I don’t desire a Flinstones style car. Also I’m a little tired of this president standing in the way of it. We’ve all seen him fly his private helicopters here and then close down roads, and then drive 50 SUVs to go get dinner. He and Al Gore do not care about the environment even a little, and never did.

          2. Funny, your comment doesn’t fit the liberal stereotype, but you must be one because you want “them” to “give you” cheap gas and a good car. How about going out and getting a job? Then you would be able to afford a good car and expensive gas, and nobody would have to give it to you.
            But you probably are already blaming Obama because you are not rich. Give it a break !
            But regardless of your political affiliations, you prove my point precisely. Since there is no reasonable argument against climate change, or for this pipeline, you resort to meaningless attacks on the messenger, and blame someone else for your inability to be wealthy enough to afford a decent car.

          3. Wait a minute. They won’t give me a car or cheap gas? No way. I thought they were giving them out like candy at Halloween. It’s so great we have you around to tell us these things.
            Feigning a reading comprehension challenge doesn’t actually invalidate the point.

          4. it was never a valid point to begin with.. Just more right wing displacing. It’s pretty sad that EVERY discussion about the climate has to have it’s mandatory goose stepping over al gore.
            March on boys, there’s plenty of kool aid for everyone.

  4. This column didn’t convince me about anything. It only raises questions. Like: Has the Alaskan Oil Pipeline produced any oil spills? If so, no reporter has cared to report this. So if “Boom” is supposed to scare us away from the XL Pipeline, it doesn’t do the trick.

    1. Perhaps no reporter for fox news has reported on Alaskan pipeline spills.

      but there have been plenty, and real news organizations have reported it. Not hard to find if you type anything in google about it. It’s also 40 years old. . I doubt it will leak less as it gets older. And who is going to pay to remove it when it’s really done ?