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Why Keystone pipeline approval is 'tragically shortsighted and stupid'

  • Nebraska voted to approve the Keystone XL pipeline just days after a 210,000 gallon oil spill.
  • State law prohibited the Nebraska Public Service Commission from considering health and safety risks, including spills and leaks, when deciding whether the pipeline was in the public interest.
  • When you create a bad decision-making process, you get a bad decision. Here's why continuing to depend on fossil fuels is illogical and wrong.
Part of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline under construction in Atoka, Oklahoma.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Part of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline under construction in Atoka, Oklahoma.

Nebraska's decision to approve the Keystone pipeline just days after that same pipeline sprung a leak, spilling 210,000 gallons of oil across South Dakota, was tragically shortsighted and stupid, but it wasn't surprising.

That's because, when the Nebraska Public Service Commission had to decide whether the pipeline was in the public interest, state law specifically prohibited them from considering health and safety risks, including spills and leaks. It's absurd to think it's even possible to assess whether an oil pipeline is in the public interest without such considerations, but that's just what the Public Service Commission did. And of course, when you create a bad decision-making process, you get a bad decision.

The Commission's decision, if implemented, would stick the people of Nebraska with a dangerous pipeline that could very well spring more leaks. Investing in more fossil fuel infrastructure will not strengthen our economy over the long-term, since the market is clearly indicating that clean energy sources are the future. On an investment basis, it's committing to a soon-to-be-outdated technology. Plus it only adds to the carbon emissions that are damaging our climate and warming our planet—and following the super-charged weather events that ravaged the country this summer, it's hard to think of a more needlessly destructive move than doubling down on dirty energy.

"The truth is that transitioning to clean energy like wind and solar will create millions of new, good jobs that can't be outsourced, and spur economic growth - all while avoiding the inevitable, significant damages our economy will suffer should we keep building more pipelines."

The same shortsighted decision-making and illogic that led Nebraska to consider the Keystone pipeline without taking safety risks into account drives much of the conversation about the economics of transitioning off dirty fossil fuels to clean energy.

The do-nothing crowd claims that combatting climate change is too expensive for the economy and will cost Americans jobs. It's a very convenient argument for their funders—the major oil, gas, and coal companies who poison our air and water to boost their bottom lines. Unfortunately, it has no basis in economic fact. The move to clean energy will create millions of net jobs. Like the Nebraska Public Service Commission, the deniers and industry shills are ignoring the cost side of the story. While continuing to burn every bit of fossil fuels pulled out of the ground may be extremely profitable for those oil, gas, and coal companies, if we stay on this path, it will come with tremendous costs for the country at large.

The fact is, the longer we wait to fully transition to clean energy, the more devastating the long-term consequences will be for our economy and our communities.

As we saw this summer, extreme weather events put our already-crumbling infrastructure at dire risk. The increasing intensity of these events bring increasing costs for businesses and consumers alike. In 2014, I partnered with Michael Bloomberg and Hank Paulson to analyze where we stood on the climate challenge. We projected that the average annual damages from hurricanes and flooding could cost the U.S. up to $108 billion more in damages than the current average. But Hurricane Harvey alonecost us an estimated $180 billion—to say nothing of what South Florida and Puerto Rico will pay to recover from Irma and Maria. Or the fires up and down the West.

Climate change carries implications that stretch far beyond extreme weather, however. The effects on public health are far more alarming—and those have to be taken into account in order to calculate an accurate estimate of the costs of inaction.

Higher temperatures allow insect-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and lyme disease to spread farther and faster than ever before, increasing the prevalence of such serious illnesses – and that means more sick days, lower productivity, and a drain on our economy. All of that and more will force employers out of business, kill jobs, and increase the costs of everything we buy. Our analysis concluded that the ability of outdoor workers to do their jobs—folks involved in construction, utility maintenance, landscaping, agriculture, among others—could decline by three percent over time. That's double the decline the nation experienced during the "productivity slowdown" in the 1970s.

The fossil fuel companies don't include any of this in their math when they argue that transitioning to clean energy will hurt us economically. Nor do they consider the new jobs that will be created supporting this new technology – from engineers and technicians, to parts manufacturers, to secretaries and accountants. They want to rig the decision-making process to only include information that works in their favor. But just like we saw in Nebraska, a bad process yields bad outcomes.

The truth is that transitioning to clean energy like wind and solar will create millions of new, good jobs that can't be outsourced, and spur economic growth - all while avoiding the inevitable, significant damages our economy will suffer should we keep building more pipelines. Most important of all, it will protect our air and water from toxic pollution produced by outdated fossil fuels, ensuring a healthier, more prosperous future.

We will pay a heavy price if we insist on navigating the 21st century with a 20th century mindset. It's time we start rejecting all new fossil fuel infrastructure, and instead embrace a clean energy future.

Commentary by Tom Steyer, the founder Farallon Capital. He is currently president of NextGen America, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.

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