Keystone and the Troubling Growth of NIMBYism

A constant theme of the 2012 election season has been the national bewilderment over President Obama’s initial decision to veto the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and his later decision to praise the construction of the southern portion of the pipeline — over which the president had no veto power. Though this is hardly the first time a major industrial project has been stymied for political reasons, the pipeline project has caught the nation’s eye in part due to rising gasoline prices.

Many Americans are anxious over the extent to which the United States relies on oil imports, some from countries hostile to our interests. While the pipeline has a small relationship to the price of gasoline, voters want politicians to do something to reduce gas prices. In addition, many voters are concerned primarily with job creation, and they understand that building and operating the pipeline would create many jobs, funded by industry rather than the government. The pipeline has stayed in the news because it has come to symbolize a bigger issue: the divide between those on the left who oppose new fossil fuel development, and those on the right who prefer “drill, baby, drill.”

Keystone is also symbolic of the troubling growth of “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) activism in America. Projects such as the Keystone pipeline, mining activities, hydraulic fracturing and other natural resource production often run into opposition from local communities that seem to support these projects in theory but always have an excuse when a project shows up near where they live, work or play. While each individual project has a relatively minor effect on the national economy, the cumulative effect of a series of cancelled projects is significant: reduced economic activity and wealth creation, higher raw material costs and increased resource development in developing countries where environmental safeguards are less common.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a website dedicated to energy projects that have run into local opposition titled “Project No Project.” While many of the featured projects have been stymied by NIMBY activists, many others have been stopped through the work of professional environmental organizations, whose primary mission these days seems to be shutting down natural resource and fossil fuel energy projects.

These organizations are well funded and have been very successful through a combination of lawsuits and advocacy campaigns. To give two examples, they’ve gone after coal mining in West Virginia under the guise of saving a short-lived insect, and they’ve petitioned the EPA to preemptively deny permitting to the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. The Pebble Mine contains enormous deposits of gold and copper, and would create at least 1,000 jobs lasting decades into the future. Yet environmentalists are demanding that the EPA deny the mine permits without even investigating its potential environmental risks.

This activism is not limited to fossil fuels or mining. Environmentalists are even unwilling to accept the construction of energy projects they proclaim to favor. The Los Angeles Times recently documented the stiff opposition by local environmental groups to the construction of solar panels in California’s Mojave Desert. Green groups have also organized opposition to a proposed offshore wind energy project on the East Coast — Cape Wind — which has been tied up in lawsuits. The list goes on and on.

The NIMBY problem won’t easily be solved, as individuals tend to oppose projects that they consider risky when those projects are sited near their communities. It is difficult to communicate the benefits of a specific project, as they are often spread wide throughout the U.S. economy, but each project matters.

The result of widespread NIMBY activism is BANANA — build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody. In the end, this amounts to a death by a thousand cuts to the U.S. economy.

Though it would be helpful if the federal government were to take an approach that favored resource development, states can also compete against one another to encourage resource development in their states by passing laws that restrict the extent to which projects can be delayed for years while bogus lawsuits are settled in court.