A tale of two projects

1. The Myitsone Dam

Here’s a quick Trivial Pursuit question for you.

How many dam construction projects do the Chinese currently have underway worldwide?

Over 250, in 68 countries.

Hmm. I underestimated. Did you?

Actually, today that may be one less, depending upon who you believe. Accounts are conflicting, but The Economist reports that the government of Myanmar (Burma) has notified the Chinese that they are suspending construction of the controversial[1] Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River. As The Economist notes, this is an extraordinary step for two reasons. First, the Myanmar government risks the ire of the Chinese, who had been just about their only remaining ally. The Chinese had been expected to receive virtually all the electricity generated by this project. Second, government leaders have taken this step in response to public opposition, which hitherto has not mattered in Burmese affairs.

But back to the larger statistic…all those dam projects in countries around the globe. Environmental groups have developed a pretty good brief on the negative environmental impacts of large dam projects. U.S. federal agencies, including but not limited to the Corps of Engineers, NOAA, and USGS have developed an extensive body of knowledge about the strengths and limitations of such construction for water management and energy production, and the associated environmental consequences. Dam construction promises to be more cautious this century than last. It’s no longer viewed as the panacea for water resources, flood control, and power generation we once thought.

Which calls to mind earlier posts (here and here) in this blog speaking to a Marshall Plan for the 21st century. To repeat the basic idea…The original Marshall Plan put Europe back on its feet economically following the ravages of World War II. Today, nations of the world have a similar need for expertise with respect to resource extraction, environmental protection, and public safety in the face of hazards. The U.S. public-, private-, and academic sectors have built substantial capacity in these subjects. We can make a better world and improve U.S. fortunes at the same time by strategically and purposefully partnering with other countries in this arena.

What’s not to like?

To go back to that article in The Economist…it’s clear the Myanmar government is doing this remarkable turnaround because it wants to restore its dialog and collaboration with the rest of the world, and is willing to risk the China connection to do so.


2. The Keystone pipeline

The second project, the Keystone pipeline, is closer to home. If approved and built, it will connect Canada’s Alberta oil sands with Texas refineries 1700 miles distant. The potential benefits? Proponents argue that this supply will reduce U.S. dependence on oil from politically volatile regions of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The negatives? Extracting the oil from those sands is a dirty process. And any such pipeline brings with it the prospect of leaks and worse that threaten the environment along the entire route. Just this past year Montanans experienced a “small” spill on the Yellowstone River that illustrated the hazard. Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, writing in The Washington Post, summarize the political debate as the decision draws near.


Together these projects, just two of thousands underway internationally, illustrate the tensions and tradeoffs that lie ahead. As noted in earlier posts, sustainability is an oxymoron. Real-world physics dictates that we can never fully satisfy resource needs, environmental protection, and public safety with any individual action or decision, let alone the aggregate. But we can do a lot to assess and then minimize those tradeoffs. The key starting point is to assess these three dimensions simultaneously, not relegating any one or two of the three to an afterthought. We can also innovate – not just in physical and natural science and engineering, but also on the social side – in ways that reduce these tradeoffs further and buy time for the human race.

[1] controversial? The word is redundant in discussing any project whatsoever these days.

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