For those of us who work professionally in risk management, it’s striking how many of the controversies surrounding the Trump administration are essentially controversies about risks. That means that if you want to argue more effectively (and intelligently) about many of these controversies, you need to know some basics from the discipline known as risk analysis. The good news is that the basic concepts are very easy to learn.
Most of the controversy around the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been about the environment. But there’s another angle to this controversy which I think most people have ignored.
Let’s make a distinction between two very different questions:
#1: Should we use pipelines at all to transport oil?
#2: Should we build this pipeline on this proposed route?
I am no expert on these issues, but I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that the answer to #1 is, “Yes.”
Notice that does very little to also support answering #2 with a “Yes.” Forgetting the pesky treaty which this seems to violate, why put the pipeline through a lake if you don’t have to do that? Why not just detour the pipeline around the lake and then everybody can be happy? Why take this risk? Even if the risk is low, the risk is not zero. So why take the risk?
Or, to be more blunt, why would Trump impose the risk on them (the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe)? It’s one thing if you want to choose to take a risk which only affects you. For example, a person might choose to eat an unhealthy diet, despite the health risks, because it tastes good. In that case, they get the risk but they also get the benefit.
It’s another thing if you want to force another person to take a risk against their will, especially if they don’t benefit from the risk-taking. Imagine if, through some science fiction scenario, it were possible to eat whatever you wanted but all of the negative health consequences happened to your neighbor’s body, not yours. In that case, you get all the upside while they are stuck with the downside.
Essentially the same problem is affecting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They are the ones most impacted if the pipeline leaks oil into the lake, but they don’t share any of the profits from the pipeline.
#1. Think about how you felt when you first heard about what happened to the good people of Flint, Michigan when their water supply was contaminated with lead.
#2. Now think about the current plan to build a risky oil pipeline through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s only source of drinking water. Imagine the pipeline is built and then sometime later leaks oil into the water.
If you’d be less upset about #2 than #1, ask yourself this question: “Why?”