By Lucas Zeppetello
May 10, 2013
I entered engineering school at Columbia University in September of last year intent on pursuing my interest in the development of alternative energy technology. Throughout this past year, my classmates and I have been often reminded of how engineers are really public servants whose ideas, inventions, and discoveries can be powerful agents of change if the engineer is committed to them. The somewhat less inspiring reality is that if the political or industrial climate is not ready for a new technology, or is too comfortable with the status quo to accept anything different, there is little an engineer, or team of engineers, can do to implement their idea. No matter how potent the vision, no matter how novel the invention, no matter how many challenges could be conquered by implementation of an idea, if the political will does not exist to change a system, the end goal becomes exponentially harder to reach.
The proposed additions to the Keystone pipeline present a dangerous situation where lack of political will to embrace change can have dire environmental and social consequences. The pipeline that has been proposed, and is being seriously considered by the Obama administration, would transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Houston, Texas, where it would be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products. In other words, the current political institution may opt to place its faith in a resource that is doing more harm than good while perfectly useful green energy solutions remained unused, waiting in the wings. While burning oil is certainly the way the current energy consuming sectors of American infrastructure operate today, the oil dependency will have to be changed eventually; there is no debating that point. Reserves are coming closer to depletion every day as the world continues to burn its way through the fuel which runs it. The pipeline will buy some time, but ultimately will only delay the inevitable downfall of fossil fuels.
Supporters of the KeyStone XL pipeline claim that the project would make the United States more energy independent by reducing the country’s reliance on foreign oil - and argue that the construction of the pipeline would create new jobs in a time of economic instability. Both of these points when taken at face value seem reasonable until the environmental impact of their consequences is considered. The political and national security risks associated with the purchase of foreign oil along with the threats posed by a shaky job market pale in comparison to the environmental threat posed by continuing our dependence on fossil fuels. We should not be worried about our dependence on foreign oil; we should be worried about our addiction to oil, period. The environmental consequences of our dependence on this energy source have been well understood by scientists for decades and president Obama has continually affirmed his administration’s belief in clean energy and the serious nature of climate change. Yet this proposed pipeline would expedite the same climate change processes that have already placed human life in danger world-wide.
Merely taking this proposal seriously (to say nothing of actually approving it) bespeaks bewildering ignorance and arrogance on the part of the administration. Engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are working daily on the development of clean energy alternatives to oil. Many of these alternatives are already poised to be implemented in key energy-using sectors of the modern American infrastructure, and yet they go under-utilized because that infrastructure has been built with the burning of oil in mind. Even though the challenges are massive, and oil corporations have run smear campaigns in attempts to diminish public opinion of alternative energy, changing the American infrastructure to incorporate new forms of energy is not an insurmountable obstacle. However, change will be impossible if hypocritical people in power continue to state their half-hearted commitment to the development of clean energy, while acting and legislating in a way that perpetuates the status quo.
While the prevailing message that has been disseminated to me and my classmates as freshman engineering students is that any engineer can have an impact so long as they are committed enough to their idea, the reality is that the implementation of new technology is contingent on an accepting political climate. This connection between political will and scientific advancement has the potential to be extraordinarily liberating for engineers. If those concerned with the development of technology understand that change can be implemented on a national scale with the help of a central government willing to embrace new technology, the possibilities are almost endless.
However, the same connection can also dissuade engineering students like me from entering into areas concerned with challenges on a national (or global) scale. With the information regarding our dire fossil fuel addiction and the knowledge of viable alternative energy options that are ready to be implemented in some sectors of the American infrastructure, the administration’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would send a message that people in power don’t care if the world is spiraling into a cycle of environmental decline. The administration may as well admit that the environmental disasters that will result if climate change is allowed to continue are not to be put above the convenience and profitability of oil as an energy resource. If the pipeline is approved, those with the most power to impact change on a national scale will have proclaimed that clean energy science will only be used as a last resort when the wells runs dry and the world is forced to change.
If this message is sent by the current administration, by the same president who proclaimed that “We can’t have an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past” I will very much want to abandon all of my educational pursuits and dedicate myself to protesting all activities which contribute to the development, and not dismantling, of the United States’ fossil fuel infrastructure. I will not have lost hope in the quest for alternative energy, but I will have lost hope in my ability to impact it as an engineer. If the policy is going to be one of denial of the consequences that the United States’ addiction to fossil fuels will incur in the coming years, then what hope do those scientists and engineers dedicated to finding sustainable solutions to the energy problems have to impact change? This is a question that, if the pipeline is approved, I will not be able to answer. The idealism and belief in my ability to impact change that spurned me down the challenging road to an undergraduate degree in engineering will no longer be enough to keep me engaged in my educational pursuits.
Perhaps my resolve is not strong enough, but if the pipeline is approved, the same outdated and dangerous modes of energy that started the cycle of environmental decline will have been encouraged to continue by those who have the greatest ability to impact change. In that moment, I as an engineering student will no longer believe in my own ability to impact change. I do not believe that I am the only one who is experiencing this feeling of hopelessness surrounding the Keystone Pipeline. I believe that, if approved, the Keystone pipeline would dissuade up and coming engineers all across the world from entering into alternative energy and that is possibly more dangerous than the impacts of the pipeline itself. Not only will the United States have gained another pipeline whose sole purpose is to transport the oil which is contributing to the degradation of the environment, but it will lose out on those individuals with a drive and passion for finding a better way.