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Why Unions Should Reconsider Support for Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

Presidents of several unions have come out in support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But the damage the pipeline will do far outweighs its benefits.

More than two million American construction workers -- nearly one in five -- are currently unemployed. Factories that produce building materials are operating at only half their capacity. So when a private company proposes a project it claims will spur the creation of 118,000 new jobs, it is hardly surprising that unions representing construction, transportation and related workers pricked up their ears.

The project is the Keystone XL Pipeline. It will take oil produced from tar sands in Alberta, Canada 1,959 miles to Nederland, Texas.

The general presidents of the Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers, and Laborers unions say the project will "pave a path to better days and raise the standard of living for working men and women in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries." It will allow American workers to "get back to the task of strengthening their families and the communities they live in." 

It sounds good. But before supporting the project, we need to take a deeper look at whether this project -- and the energy practices it will make possible -- will really lead to "better days" for working men and women, their families, and their communities. We need to know whether there are dangers that make the project more of a threat than a promise. And we need to know whether the claims made for its benefits are really true.

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Under the forest in northern Alberta, Canada lie the world's largest deposits of so-called "tar sands," sand mixed with thick, tar-like oil. To produce one barrel of heavy crude oil from tar sands requires strip mining the forest, extracting four tons of earth, contaminating two to four barrels of fresh water, burning large amounts of natural gas, and creating vast holding ponds of toxic sludge. Production of this oil is increasing and a growing amount of it is already being shipped to the US.

The Keystone XL will be a 36-inch crude oil pipeline stretching nearly 2,000 miles from Hardisty, Alberta through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to terminals at Nederland, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil will be heated to more than 150 degrees and pumped through it at high pressure. It is designed to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil extracted from oil sands to refineries in the US.

Does the Keystone XL hold a hidden threat?

The Keystone XL pipeline is a key link in an energy path that will lead to devastation for American working families. Here's why.

We've all heard about global warming caused by the emission of carbon and other "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere. Despite the claims of a political faction that it is a myth, there is a near-total consensus among climate scientists that it is real and that it will cause devastating climate change. That means rising sea levels, an ever-increasing number of extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and heat waves, and consequences like forest fires and species extinction.

We can see these effects emerging right now. 2010 was tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record. Rising sea levels, heat waves, forest fires, tornadoes, floods -- their rising frequency and destructiveness are not in some distant future, but happening right now.  As Scientific American recently noted

In this year alone massive blizzards have struck the U.S. Northeast, tornadoes have ripped through the nation, mighty rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri have flowed over their banks, and floodwaters have covered huge swaths of Australia as well as displaced more than five million people in China and devastated Colombia. And this year's natural disasters follow on the heels of a staggering litany of extreme weather in 2010, from record floods in Nashville, Tenn., and Pakistan, to Russia's crippling heat wave.

Scientists calculate that the safe level for carbon in the atmosphere is 350 parts per millions. But we are already significantly over that level -- which is why we are already facing devastating climate change. Only by drastically limiting our carbon emissions can we limit still greater devastation.