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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.

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Why is a single pipeline -- the Keystone XL -- so important to this story? Because it is the key link in an energy strategy that will radically escalate carbon emissions still further.

The energy strategy is to introduce large quantities of oil from Canadian tar sands. According to the US Department of Environmental Protection, the greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands crude oil will be more than 80 percent greater than oil refined in the US. Independent estimates run up to three times more global warming pollution than conventional oil.

Once the Keystone XL is in place, a wide area of the US will become dependent on oil from Canadian tar sands. With no available alternative, pressure will grow to import more and more of it. Even more dangerous, the pipeline will lock in dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come and remove the pressure to convert to renewable alternatives.

The Alberta tar sands are estimated to contain enough carbon to raise carbon emissions in the atmosphere by 200 parts per million. That would increase the current level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by more than half. It would be more than enough to create more climate change than in the entire history of humanity on earth. It would also render pointless all other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

As leading climate scientist James Hanson put it, "If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the co2 while burning oil." We "cannot get back to a safe CO2 level" if "unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands are exploited."

There are also a multitude of other problems with the project. Tar sands extraction is already devastating native lands in Alberta. Other recently built pipelines are leaking and spilling large quantities of oil into the US environment. The pipeline threatens the aquifer that is critical for Midwestern agriculture and drinking water. The tar sand oil carries some of the deadliest chemicals, including nickel, vanadium, lead, chromium, mercury, arsenic, selenium, and benzene.

But isn't the Keystone XL pipeline part of a balanced energy policy?

The trade union leaders' letter to Secretary Clinton acknowledges the criticism that "further development of Canada's oil sands puts in jeopardy U.S. efforts aimed at capping carbon emissions and greenhouse gases." It presents as an answer a position that has often been stated by spokespeople for US labor: "Comprehensive energy and environmental policy should strive to address climate concerns while simultaneously ensuring adequate supplies of reliable energy and promoting energy independence and national security."

Such a "balanced policy" sounds reasonable. But the problem is that in practice it means putting off the necessary sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for further decades, guaranteeing that the climate catastrophe will grow worse and worse.

Indeed, the letter goes on to say, "Alternative energy sources are generally still in developmental stages; therefore it is likely the U.S. consumer will remain substantially dependent on carbon fuels for the next several decades."

Any policy based on the assumption that the US will "remain substantially dependent on carbon fuels for the next several decades" is condemning American working people, all Americans, and indeed the entire world to a fate worse than humanity has ever known.

Are the job claims real or fraudulent?

The letter to Hilary Clinton states that the pipeline will "spur the creation of 118,000 jobs." The headline of a statement by the American Petroleum Institute reads "API: Keystone XL Pipeline bill will create hundreds of thousands of new American jobs." The It quotes an API official that "US jobs supported by Canadian oil sands development could grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs by 2035."