Environmental costs and economic benefits in recession

MPR’s getting a lot of response to our Question of the Day on balancing environmental protection and job creation.

But here’s another question: What do you do when you’re getting the economic benefits and someone else is paying the environmental costs?

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We started thinking about that as we recalled the Enbridge pipeline expansion in northern Minnesota, a controversial project to bring tar-sands oil from Canada into the U.S. that’s expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

We mentioned the project and its hoped-for economic benefits to northern Minnesota in a post last fall, after the U.S. State Department backed a permit.

MPR also produced a deep piece on the economic boom and thousands of jobs the pipeline’s construction was producing in northern Minnesota communities that badly needed the work.

“The Bemidji area alone saw an influx of close to 800 well-paid pipeline workers. Some were hired locally, and some come from other parts of the country,” MPR’s Tom Robertson reported in November.

But while Minnesota’s enjoying a short-term boost, pipeline opponents argue the environmental costs are being tallied somewhere else — in open pit mines in Alberta, Canada and, eventually, around the globe as the crude is refined.

“Minnesotans need to understand the whole story,” said Sarah Risser, a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network from St. Paul who told us in emails last fall and today that she believes there’s been too much focus on job creation and not enough on the environmental cost.

“Of course, I understand how important it is to get Minnesotans back to work.” she said, “but I also believe we need to ensure that people understand exactly what the pipeline is bringing to our state.”

The crude oil that will run through the pipeline is considered some of the dirtiest on Earth. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, extracting bitumen from the Tar Sands and turning it into crude oil is a dirty, energy-intensive and destructive process. It takes four tons of material dug out of open pit mines to produce a single barrel of oil.

Mining bitumen from the Tar Sands requires open-pit operations comparable to mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia: large tracts of boreal forest are cut, wetlands are drained, layers of soil and peat moss are removed, important habitat is lost.

In the end, it’s probably a lot easier to answer the environment vs jobs question when it’s the same group of people affected directly by both. It’s harder to parse when someone gets the jobs creation and someone else pays much of the environmental price.

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Thoughts on the issue? Post below or contact me directly. And please try Today’s Question.

  • Bob Thompson

    The issue is already resolved. The billions of dollars going to “green energy” money is going into finding alternatives to stop the degradation of land. So, Sara Risser, your party was voted for and it is now spending the time and money into resolving the issue. To me, the concern should not be there anymore. I believe it is time to quit worrying about the environment so much and start focusing on education again.