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Why Scientists Are in Alarm Mode Over the Keystone XL Pipeline

"Environmental science gets politicized because it has economic implications," says a leading scientist.

Why are scientists in alarm mode over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile long conduit that would transport a chemical-laden synthetic oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas? Scientists across specialized fields have joined forces to make public statements, penned a formal letter to President Obama, and have even committed acts of civil disobedience in front of the White House during the national  Tar Sands Action.

What do they know that we don’t?

I sought out these questions, traveling to the furthest southern extent of Cape Cod to the township of Woods Hole; a place of world renown for its oceanic studies and a hub of scientific exploration since the late 1800s. I had come to meet with one of the signatories of the  Obama letter, ecologist George M. Woodwell, at the Woods Hole Research Center.

While awaiting his arrival, I walked around the facility and its grounds. WHRC, also a campus, is ensconced in eight acres of oxygen-rich forest where burnt and downed tree trunks are left alone to decompose. The carpet of detritus underfoot was so dense and varied its components were indecipherable to the naked eye. The outdoor laboratory is a sliver of what they do on a global scale: WHRC is a preeminent collector of data on forests. They track and record the health of forests worldwide in tandem with cooperators in the Amazon, the Arctic, Africa, Russia, Alaska, Canada, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic.

Taiga Biome

Once the interview was underway, Woodwell, founder and director emeritus of WHRC, did not mince words about the Keystone XL project: “The tar sands is a complete scandal; it’s totally for profit—for Canadian profit, political profit, financial profit—and not for the public good because the oil poisons the world, and the methods of getting it poisons the world in more ways than anybody is admitting.”

Woodwell believes the role of government is to protect the public welfare, and that includes protection of the environment. For those who argue for less oversight, he presented an inventory of what a loosely regulated business world has produced in the past: slavery, the effluence of smelters that killed people and vegetation, silicosis in miners, and chemical and radiation poisoning of workers. For an example of a country in ecological collapse, he pointed to Haiti. “They don’t have a functioning environment, economy, or government. All must stand together. Take one away, or make one fail, and the others fail.”

He has been accused on more than one occasion of being political. Woodwell conducted the groundbreaking research on DDT that formed the basis for its eventual nationwide ban in 1972. He has a very short answer why such accusations exist: “Environmental science gets politicized because it has economic implications.”

Woodwell, who prefers the term “climate disruption” to climate change, is clear on what must be done to stabilize the already teetering-on-the-edge biosphere. The use of fossil fuels must be reduced and “we have to stop deforestation, all of it, all over the world because the carbon pool in the vegetation of the earth is connected to forests.”

The carbon storage capacity of forests is approximately three times as large as the pool of carbon in the atmosphere. If forests are changed, reduced, or eliminated, the pool, or captured carbon, goes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). According to Woodwell, the carbon release from deforestation accounts for “25 to 30 percent of the four to five billion tons of carbon accumulating a year in the atmosphere from the total of all human activities.”

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