Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline: 2012 PEC Advocacy Brief

By Jenny Holmes, PEC Advocacy Committee Co-Chair  and former PEC Moderator

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk
- Dr. James Hansen, New York Times, May 10, 2012

“People of faith strongly believe that we need an urgent response to the climate crisis through continued implementation of better clean air safeguards, construction of a renewable energy grid, and more robust energy efficiency and renewable energy standards. The Keystone XL would only slow the pace of this clean energy transition, continue with business worse than usual, and hasten global warming. We can and must model a way forward for the world, create jobs, and care for God's Creation. 
- The Rev. Sally Bingham, Interfaith Power and Light, January 2012
image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon using EO-1 ALI data courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Caption by Holli Riebeek.
2009 image from NASA of the Athabasca oil sands in Canada

Tar sands  are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. Canada has the only large-scale commercial tar sands industry and   Alberta's Boreal forest, downstream for the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is its center. Currently, tar sands represent about 40% of Canada's oil production. Approximately 20% of U.S. crude oil and products come from Canada, and a  significant portion of this amount comes from tar sands. To extract all of the 2 trillion barrels of oil in tar sands, an area larger than the state of Florida would be destroyed. 

Transcanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline would transport heavy crude oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in the Gulf Coast. Most of this crude would be made into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin American. The argument that the Keystone XL pipeline reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil is not valid. The best way to improve energy security is to reduce demand. A U.S. Department of Energy report found that the only way to reduce mid-east oil imports was through reducing demand through fuel efficiency. Rainforest Action recommends redirecting “the $70-100 billion dollars the United States is set to invest in tar sands infrastructure into research and development of sustainable energy alternatives such as electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and solar and wind energy. “ PEC strongly agrees. The more invested in fossil fuel infrastructure of any kind, the less is available for development of sustainable energy and the harder, and more expensive, the needed transition to renewable resources will be. 

Pollution from mining and processing tar sands is significant. The processing of tar sands releases air pollutants that can increase asthma and respiratory diseases, cancer and cardiovascular problems. Drinking water has been polluted by tar sands activity. First Nations people who derive subsistence from the land are disproportionately affected by the toxic products of tar sands mining and processing. Oil contamination has increased the level of arsenic to 33 times above acceptable levels in moose meat, a dietary staple for First Nations people. 

A strong grassroots movement to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, led by Bill McKibben's and Tar Sands Action was vital in President Obama's January 2012 rejection of  it, at least in its original route. This route took it directly over one of the 174,000 square mile Ogallala Aquifer which underlies portions of eight states from South Dakota to Texas and over the  environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska.   Other routes are now being considered, but  much larger issues are at stake-- the most significant being the massive amount of greenhouse gases released by exploiting the tar sands. Climate change is a threat to national security and the U.S. State Department, the agency responsible for permitting the Keystone XL pipeline, knows this and it should figure significantly in its analysis. The U.S. State Department admitted in October 2011 that its environmental review of Keystone XL was conducted by a contractor paid by the pipeline company itself, a potentially illegal conflict of interest.  

As with MTR, all 12 ethical guidelines are violated by tar sands mining, processing and transport. The guidelines of  equity, efficiency, risk, cost and aesthetics are especially relevant.  

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