The XL Pipeline: Jonesing for energy

"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.