By Chip Colwell, University of Colorado Denver
On his fourth day as U.S. president, Donald Trump penned executive orders to advance construction of the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline. A week later, there were reports the new administration has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to grant an easement that will allow completion of the disputed Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed.
However, this viewpoint focuses on the profits that go to the oil and construction industries, while ignoring the price that will be paid by other sectors of America’s economy, including tourism and preservation of our cultural heritage — a point I’m quite aware of as an anthropologist focused on the American West. A more accurate reckoning of the economic benefits of pipelines needs to consider the negative impact of pipelines on other parts of our economy.
The Business of Preservation
The management of America’s heritage begins with a suite of important federal laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, which affirms that “the spirit and direction of the Nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic heritage.” The NHPA’s starting point is that patriotism, preservation and profits are not contrary goals, declaring that “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”
Preserving America’s past for its future is a monumental task. A National Park Service report, for example, found that just in 2014 16.5 million acres were surveyed for cultural resources across the United States. More than 137,000 properties were evaluated for their historical significance and added to state inventories, while more than 1,000 new sites were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The industry that fulfills this trust responsibility is known as cultural resource management, which is made up of a small but highly skilled set of technicians in archaeology, architecture, engineering, geography, history and related fields. There are about 1,300 CRM firms nationwide — nearly all of them small businesses — which employ some 10,000 people. These businesses in turn feed more work, such as equipment suppliers, IT and HR professionals, accountants and administrative support.
The 2014 NPS report also documented the role of historic preservation in the country’s economy. Between 1977 and 2014, under the Federal Historic Preservation Tax program, more than US$73 billion in private investment has been generated to rehabilitate commercial historic properties and nearly 140,000 low and moderate housing units were built in restored historic buildings. Since 1978, an estimated 2.4 million jobs have been created through these projects focused on the preservation of America’s heritage.
The places that are protected have economic tendrils that reach far across the country through tourism. In 2015, for instance, more than 305 million people visited national parks. These tourists spent nearly $16 billion on an array of local services — hotels, gas stations, restaurants — helping to sustain nearly 300,000 jobs. Tourists and travelers visit scores of other national, state and local parks, spending their money to enjoy nature and cultural sites.
Cost of Spills
In announcing their support for expediting the pipelines, Trump’s allies also failed to acknowledge the negative impacts of environmental damage.
For example, the 2010 BP oil spill immediately impacted tourism. Even five years later, tourists were slow to return to some spots along the Gulf Coast, and economists argued that BP’s $10 billion in payments did not fully account for the spill’s secondary effects.
These accidents can directly impact everyday Americans. As of last year, some 50,000 claims were still sitting with BP. Transporting oil via pipelines is generally safer than rail, truck or barge, yet pipeline spills do occur and cause financial problems. According to the federal agency the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, since 1995, accidents involving oil and petroleum pipelines have caused approximately $3 billion in property damage. The change to people’s sense of place and the trauma caused by oil spills are also a negative effect, though hard to enumerate.
In the end, we all are likely to pay as tax dollars are used in part for the Superfund program to clean up spills: for example, a Texaco oil pipeline in California that has contaminated the soil and groundwater.
In other places, it’s not only a question of accidents but accepting the negative effects of extraction over the positive effects of preservation. The recent decision to allow oil and gas drilling around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico — considered one of the best-preserved centers of Pueblo culture in the American Southwest — will likely destroy irreplaceable archaeological sites and could dissuade some tourists from visiting the World Heritage Site — a place deemed as important as the Taj Mahal, Easter Island and Statue of Liberty.
A Different Economic Development
The Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines in some measure threaten to undermine the possibilities of the heritage industry — particularly if the projects were to bypass standard environmental mitigation, as happened recently at Oak Flats in Arizona. According to a State Department report done under the Obama administration, the Keystone pipeline would disturb more than 15,000 acres, 10 percent of that public lands. The corridor would cross 265 archaeological sites and 132 historic structures — 44 of which are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The pipeline would also be a risk to more than 2,500 water wells, soils, wildlife and vegetation.
The report also calculated the Keystone XL pipeline would generate about 42,000 jobs indirectly and about 3,900 construction jobs if the project were done in one year — far fewer than the 28,000 Trump touted when signing the order. Once the pipeline is operating, it would employ about 35 full-time and 15 temporary employees, according to the report.
In contrast, heritage provides a different kind of economic development. Not only does it protect places that honor our past and living cultures, but also increases property values, protects natural resources needed for communities to thrive and grow, supports small businesses and provides sustainable long-term jobs in tourism and associated commercial ventures.
Trump’s apparent preference for the oil industry shouldn’t be surprising — after all, only recently Trump sold off his stake in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline. But a president who professes to care so deeply about business should see the economic benefits of protecting heritage and preserving nature, too.