The Keystone Pipeline: Triple Trouble


The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry about 830,000 barrels a day at full capacity, has been catching a lot of grief locally because it could spill oil that might ruin our underground water supply. That much is true. But the environmental cost of the pipeline does not stop there. The oil that will be transported is refined from tar sands, mainly from Alberta, which combine all the worst attributes of fossil fuels: spill potential, the carbon footprint of coal, and the environmental damage of coal strip mining. Tar sands are, briefly stated, a triple environmental atrocity—enough to send a thinking person to a bicycle.

Not only does the extraction of tar sands scar the environment in ways that drilling for petroleum does not, but refining it to a useful product is considerably more energy-intensive than ‘ordinary’ oil… Thus, its dirty carbon footprint. Tar sands are so dirty that our growing dependence on tar sand imports from Canada (touted by the national-security minded as a substitute for Middle Eastern oil) may cook the atmospheric books to make dangerous global warming inevitable in coming years.

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, has done the math, and come up with figures anticipating that continued development of coal-fired electric power along with tar sands will make recovery from present levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere impossible. That level, presently almost 390 parts per million and rising, is as high as during the Pliocene, 2 to 3 million years ago, when the Earth had very little long-lasting ice, and sea levels were almost 200 feet higher than today. Hansen and many other climate experts believe that we must roll the carbon dioxide level back to at least 350 parts per million, or risk long-term environmental damage.

‘Essentially Game Over’?

“The scientific community has to get involved in this fray now,” Hansen told his email correspondents. “If this project gains approval, it will become exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster.” The “monster” is the carbon emissions of the tar-sands resource—fully exploited, enough to add about 200 parts per million to atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels. Stabilization of climate requires, according to Hansen, phase-out of coal emissions over the next few decades, and an energy strategy that leaves “unconventional fossil fuels,” such as tar sands, “in the ground.” The other option, says Hansen, is “essentially game over.”

“Governments are acting as if they are oblivious to the fact that there is a limit to how much fossil fuel we can put into the air,” Hansen wrote. And fossil-fuel companies? Every day we get the same diet of televised propaganda that tells us oil development is necessary for our economic well-being, and coal is ‘clean.’ Repeat after me: ‘Coal is Clean,’ ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Freedom is Slavery…’

Tar Sands No Matter What

In the meantime, oil-industry experts are telling us that tar sands will be developed, and oil refined from them will be exported from Canada (possibly by ship or rail), regardless of whether the pipeline is approved, no matter what damage it inflicts on the environment. “The Canadian oil sands will continue to be developed irrespective of whether the pipeline goes ahead,” Russell K. Girlling, president and chief executive of TransCanada, the company financing the $7 billion pipeline, told the New York Times. The tar sand fields of Alberta contain reserves of about 170 billion barrels of oil, in the same league as Saudi Arabia’s 265 billion barrels.

In other words, tar sands’ huge demand for water and energy, as well as its damage to the boreal forests of Canada, is beside the point—which is profit. One wonders how much damage will have to be done before people realize that our appetite for fossil fuels is condemning coming generations to a hot, miserable, barren future. “This is really a campaign against tar sands expansion rather than a single pipeline,” Susan Casey Lefkowitz, director of the International Program at the National Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times’ Ian Austen.

The United States, the world’s largest importer of oil, already buys nearly all of the tar sands product that Canada exports. The oil produced in Canada is relatively thick, and suited for refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Much of this oil already flows from Canada to Oklahoma through an existing pipeline. Other pipelines also exist. Some tar sands-based oil is already also shipped to the Gulf Coast by rail. This avoids the cost of new infrastructure, as well as environmental review.

Early in 2011, Canadians re-elected a conservative government that has been an avid advocate of tar-sands development. China has expressed an interest in sopping up every drop of tar-sands oil that the United States does not buy.

In the meantime, the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise. The carbon dioxide doesn’t have a grudge against humans, or other living things. It doesn’t care if you drive an SUV or ride a bicycle. It doesn’t care if you ignore its influence in atmospheric chemistry. All carbon dioxide does, in this instance, is hold heat. The higher the level, essentially, the higher the temperature. And at the current rate we’re generating it, a rising level of CO2 will make our planet a very miserable (and, given enough time, uninhabitable) place.

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March 8th 2014

Lynne - No pipeline. Who will monitor 1400 miles of pipeline. Trouble makers? No pipeline please.