The latest bone-headed move by the fossil fuel industry to build a pipeline across the United States is testing my patience. And I’m someone who’s seen a lot of really dumb environmental behavior.
Growing up in central New Jersey I watched as developers bought up the farms around my family’s house, scraped off the fertile (for New Jersey) topsoil, and parceled off house lots. The new landowners then turned around and paid good money for topsoil to be trucked back in from someone else’s recently converted farm to construct picture-perfect suburban lawns.
I also watched my new neighbors washing their driveways. Not their cars — actually scrubbing down the driveways. And in the process sending detergents, gasoline, and oil into storm drains that emptied into Stony Brook, which emptied into the Delaware-Raritan Canal, our town’s source of drinking water.
Years later I worked as a landscaper on an island off the coast of Maine popular with the conspicuously wealthy. One of my favorite tasks was taking the leaf blower to unsightly pine needles in the "woods" surrounding their homes in the fall and then artfully scattering red and orange maple leaves in their place… under the pine trees.
The point is I have a fairly high tolerance for stupid environmental behavior. But the latest move by the fossil fuel industry is beyond the pale. TransCanada, a major North American energy company, wants to extend their Keystone pipeline another 1,661 miles to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas refineries.
This is stupid in three big ways.
First, in case you’ve missed the headlines, we’re staring straight into the face of a climate crisis. So far this year we’ve already hit records for heat waves, wildfires, tornadoes and floods. Extreme weather events like these are exactly what a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns are par for the course in a warming world. So why on earth would we do anything to encourage the extraction of oil from the tar sands — a process that produces three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil? Duh.
Secondly, the process of mining tar sands is disastrous to ecosystem and human health. Hard-to-extract bitumen oil is bound to sandy soils under Canada’s boreal forest and wetlands. The only way to unlock the reserve is to scrape off a part of the forest the size of Florida or melt the oil in place using a steam and pump process that decimates life on the surface.
But the idiocy doesn’t end there. It takes three barrels of water to extract every one barrel of oil from tar sands. At current rates, that means about 400 million gallons of water a day. And after it’s used the vast majority of polluted wastewater is sent to tailing ponds that have been found to leak over a billion gallons of water per year contaminated with cyanide, ammonia and other toxic chemicals.
People in Alberta living downstream of this toxic soup, especially First Nations peoples, have seen soaring rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism in their communities. To add insult to injury, these communities are also impacted economically and culturally as fisheries and sacred sites are laid waste.
At the other end of the proposed pipeline, communities already bearing a heavy toxic burden on the Gulf Coast will see a spike in their exposure to pollutants. Tar sands oil contains more sulfur, nitrogen, lead, nickel, mercury and arsenic than conventional crude oil, and refining it will spew chemicals into the local air and water.
Third is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline itself, slated to cross six states in the U.S., as well as the Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and Red River. It would also span the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of drinking water for two million Americans.
This is particularly worrying because TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline has already ruptured a dozen times in its first year of operation, gushing oil into the environment. Earlier this year a single spill released about 500 barrels of crude in a fountain of oil that, according to one account, "reached above the treetops." And because bitumen is more acidic and corrosive than conventional crude, experts say spills along this pipeline’s path are even more likely.
The $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline would increase the rate of harmful oil production from the Alberta tar sands by about one million barrels a day, encourage the expansion of a heavily polluting industry, and double the import of this dirty energy into the United States.
Luckily the pipeline extension can still be stopped.
Because it traverses an international border the pipeline has to get a permit from the Obama administration to go forward. The Environmental Protection Agency sent the State Department back to the drawing board after giving its draft environmental impacts statement the lowest possible rating of "inadequate," but lawmakers in the House of Representatives have sent the president a November first deadline for a thumbs up or down on construction.
For all the oil money in politics — and there’s about $24 million of it in Congress — I still hold out the hope that with a little help from his friends Obama will see the Keystone XL pipeline expansion as a really stupid idea.
Obama’s no dummy. He knows that increasing national energy security means reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. He knows that we don’t have extra money lying around to clean up spills and foot the bill for health impacts. And he knows that building a clean, renewable energy economy in the United States would create millions of jobs.
That’s why I’m joining thousands of parents, business owners, labor leaders, young people and environmentalists who will risk arrest during two weeks of sit-ins at the White House starting at the end of this week.
We’ll be there to help Obama say, "Enough!" to stupid stuff. And you can, too.
Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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