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January 15, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Oil politics in South Dakota

One of the things that I learned while visiting South Dakota last week is that a major environmental controversy is brewing out there on the Great Plains. Because of the rising price of crude petroleum on world market, there is a big push to build an oil pipeline from western Canada into the Midwest U.S.A. Hardly anyone would quarrel with the need for that. The proposed pipeline route would roughly parallel U.S. Route 81 through the Dakotas, crossing the Missouri River into Nebraska. A company named Hyperion, headquartered in Dallas, is making a further proposal, however, that a new oil refinery be built in Union County, South Dakota, about 20 miles northwest of Sioux City, Iowa. The company bills the $10 billion project as a "green refinery" and promises to meet the highest environmental standards. Company representatives are putting heavy pressure on Union County officials to grant the necessary zoning changes so that the refinery can be built. It would take 3,800 acres; that's almost six square miles, for you folks in Rio Linda.) After the various regulatory permits are obtained, construction would take about four years, with several thousand workers during the construction phase. More details are in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Aside from the inevitable pollution (even with high-tech smoke mitigation devices), the influx of so many workers would have a major disrupting effect on the rural communities in the southeastern part of the state. Young women at the nearby University of South Dakota would no doubt be preyed upon by restless, lonely workers with fat paychecks in their wallets. (The issue is getting heavy play in various USD blogs.) It is also one of the most fertile parts of the Midwest, and is the "gateway" through which most out-of-state visitors pass on their way to the Black Hills and other tourist destinations. (That is how Gateway Computers got their name, by the way.) In response, an organization has formed to oppose the project: Save Union County. They challenged the county planning commission's public hearing on January 16 on the grounds that the required ten-day advance notice was not given, but the meeting went ahead anyway.

This issue bears many similarities to the "megasite" issue that Augusta County leaders have wrestled with. In both cases, many of those who ordinarily favor policies to encourage economic growth are reluctant to let untrammeled development take place. Is the money really worth it? On one hand, many local residents are eager to cash in on the windfall from the land purchase, and government officials would love to have the extra tax revenue. On the other hand, there is genuine, widespread concern for preservation of the quality of life, which of course is the very reason people choose to live in bucolic (or semi-bucolic) places like Augusta County or South Dakota. Some of this may reflect the typical "NIMBY" (Not In My Back Yard) attitude that opposes any and all kinds of development. South Dakota's economy could certainly use a boost, and I wouldn't want to reject the proposal outright. I would feel much better about Hyperion's proposed refinery if alternative sites in less populated parts of the state were given serious consideration.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 16 Jan 2008, 12: 01 AM

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