Taking A Stand On The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

(Cross-posted at Winning Progressive)

The Obama Administration made the right call recently when the State Department announced that it would undertake a new environmental review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and alternative routes for the pipeline. The 1,750 mile, $7 billion proposed pipeline would carry more than 700,000 barrels of crude oil from the boreal forests of the Canadian province of Alberta to the oil refineries of Texas. After significant pressure from environmentalists and folks in Nebraska and other states along the proposed pipeline route, President Obama decided to carry out additional reviews that would push any final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until early in 2013. Republicans in Congress are trying to force the Administration to approve the pipeline by holding the extension of Obama’s payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance hostage, but so far both the White House and Senate Democrats are standing firm.

The case against the Keystone XL pipeline rests on three primary points. First, the pipeline would increase access to tar sands oil that has lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions that are 22% higher than those of more conventional sources of oil. While, as NCrissie B recently explained, the Keystone XL pipeline is not the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” that some critics suggest, the U.S. EPA has estimated that the pipeline would lead to an increase of about 27 million tons of greenhouse gases per year which is the equivalent of approximately seven new coal-fired power plants.

Second, the Keystone XL pipeline would speed additional tar sands oil development, which is wreaking havoc on the boreal forests of Alberta. Tar sands are found in the sandy soils of the boreal forest, which are made up of 90% sand, clay, silt, and water, and 10% bitumen that can be refined into oil. Extracting the bitumen involves clear cutting the forest, surface mining the land, using approximately four barrels of water to extract each one barrel of bitumen, and then storing the toxic waste in massive tailing ponds. Here are some stunning images of the impact that tar sands oil extraction is having on Alberta.

Third, the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline is over the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a massive source of fresh water that stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Tar sands pipelines have a poor track record of spills, which could lead to the contamination of this critical fresh water source.

In contrast to these impacts from the Keystone XL pipeline, two key arguments in favor of the pipeline appear to be overstated. First, supporters suggest that increasing our access to tar sands from Canada will reduce the US’s reliance on oil imports from unfriendly nations. But the pipeline is set up to deliver the tar sands oil to be refined in Texas, which means that most of the oil will be exported to Europe and elsewhere overseas, not to reduce our dependence on other foreign oil sources. Second, supporters rely on an industry-backed study to suggest that the pipeline would create tens of thousands or more jobs in the US, but independent analyses suggest that the job creation from the project would actually be about one-tenth those estimates.

A final argument made by proponents of Keystone XL is that the tar sands will be extracted from the Alberta boreal forest regardless of whether the pipeline is built. The Washington Post recently laid this argument out in objecting to President Obama’s delay of the decision, stating:

The United States must reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, from any source, and it should encourage nations such as China to lower the carbon intensity of their economies, too. Even if that happens, though, the world will continue to use oil, with all the dirty realities that entails. Rejecting Keystone XL would not change that fact. But it would help China lock up more of the world’s oil production, cost infrastructure jobs in the United States and offend a reliable ally.

In other words, if we reject the Keystone XL pipeline, China will benefit but the environment will not.

While this argument has some initial appeal, it falls apart upon closer inspection. For one thing, the argument that we should go ahead and do something bad because someone else may do so if we do not leads down a dangerous road that prevents any real action to protect the environment. Whenever there is a debate about whether to use and exploit a particular natural resource, the argument can be made that if we do not use it someone else will. But if everyone follows that argument, then no one is going voluntarily agree not to use the resource. In essence, the argument enables everyone to pretend they care about protecting the environment while ensuring that no one will act on such concerns. If we want to protect our climate and environment, such an argument cannot form the basis for policy making.

A further problem with trying to justify Keystone XL on the ground that someone else will exploit the tar sands if we do not, ignores the importance of the US showing global leadership on climate issues. Climate change is, of course, a global issue that will require all nations to take aggressive steps to reduce the amount of CO2 they emit into the atmosphere. But before we can realistically expect developing nations such as India or China to take the steps necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change, the US must first show that a developed nation can wean itself off of fossil fuels while maintaining a modern way of life. If we simply go along with the tar sands trend, despite its increased CO2 imapcts, we will be abdicating our global leadership role and, instead, simply giving other nations the excuse to decline to do anything about climate change.

Finally, viewing rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline as somehow meaningless because other countries will exploit the tar sands ignores the close competition occurring between fossil fuels and cleaner renewable energy sources in the marketplace today. The reality is that cleaner energy sources are rapidly becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels (despite the massive taxpayer subsidies that fossil fuels receive). But in order for cleaner energy to win that competition, we must ensure that the economic costs of fossil fuels on public health, the environment, and climate are fully accounted so that there is a fair economic competition between clean energy and dirty energy. But it would be much harder for cleaner energy sources to win that cost competition if we continue to fail to take into account the full cost of fossil fuels while also approving destructive proposals for increasing access to the tar sands of the boreal forest.

The Obama Administration made the right choice in calling for further review of the Keystone XL project. If you agree, please call the White House and write letters to your local newspaper editors to thank our President for taking a stand on the Keystone XL pipeline.