In the midst of rapidly developing events in Crimea, it’s easy to forget about Alberta, Canada. In Alberta, there are more species of wildlife than almost anywhere else in the world. This Canadian province hosts 587 different species, including 411 types of birds, 93 mammals, 65 fish, and ten amphibians. More than 50% of North America’s migratory birds reside in Alberta. Moreover, Alberta boasts some of the largest populations of certain mammals, such as bison, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, caribou, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. In addition to the abundant wildlife, Alberta has some of the world’s most pristine natural, undeveloped land. All of that may soon change.
I’m talking, of course, about the proposed Keystone Pipeline. If approved by President Obama, the pipeline would begin with a massive extraction site in Alberta, Canada, with oil then being shipped down through six U.S. states (Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas), ending in the Gulf Coast, the world’s largest refining and oil transport hub. On the surface, that may not seem so bad. After all, there is a worldwide demand for oil, and it’s probably better that it come from Canada and the US than from the Middle East or Venezuela–regions with substantial human rights crises.
But, as you’ve probably heard from the many protests that have sprung up across the country, there are plenty of problems associated with the Keystone Pipeline. The most pressing of these problems is that the oil underground in Alberta, Canada–where the extraction would occur–is located underneath tar sands. Oil extracted from tar sands creates three time as many greenhouse cases, in both the extraction and the burning of it, than any other method of oil extraction. It results in one “of the most polluting and carbon-intensive fuels in the world.” Refining tar sands oil would emit dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, mercury, and other toxins into the Alberta air, harming both the animal and human populations.
To access this oil, companies dig up the forest ground, pull up the oil, and then heat the oil by burning natural gas. Then they wash the oil with fresh water, leaving behind “toxic lakes that are so large they are visible from space.” (Animals then drown in this “toxic sludge.”) To produce just one barrel of tar sands oil, companies must extract four tons of earth and contaminate four barrels of fresh water.
Then there are the consequences of building the pipeline in the first place. Were we to build the pipeline, it would triple our reliance on tar sands oil and create an enormous, worldwide expansion and consumption of Canadian tar oil because oil refined in the Gulf Coast is shipped all over the world. TransCanada (the company hoping to build the pipeline) hopes to carry 900,000 barrels of tar sand oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
The problems don’t end there, however. TransCanada plans to use thinner steel in its pipes and ignore safety regulations concerning the amount of pressure used to force the oil to move through the pipes, thus allowing the company to pump oil to the Gulf Coast at dangerously high pressures. TransCanada has already applied for the special permits (from the Department of Transportation) required to accomplish this. There is a very real chance that many of the pipes will break, causing damage to the environment. The proposed pipeline, to reiterate, would flow through America’s agricultural heartland, including the Missouri, Platte, and Niobrara Rivers. It runs through the Ogallala aquifer (Nebraska’s main source of water), and habitat lands for the sage grouse, sandhill cranes, walleye fisheries, and many more protected species. Just one burst pipe in these vulnerable areas will create environmental destruction.
Lastly, with at least 900,000 more barrels of the most dangerous and toxic oil being extracted every day, there are potentially devastating climate effects at stake. The more we access, refine, and consume tar sands oil, the more we release the worst climate change-inducing toxins into the air. Many scientists claim that we are only two degrees away from so contaminating the Earth that we’ll no longer be able to reduce the effects of climate change (meaning that if we increase the Earth’s temperature by more than two degrees, we’re in a lot of trouble). Building the Keystone Pipeline has the potential to single-handedly tip us over those two degrees. Not only does the pipeline flood the oil market with the most destructive oil, but it allows us to remain dependent on conventional oils instead of developing and utilizing renewable energy sources. And, as we know, we cannot combat climate change without utilizing renewable energy.
President Obama vowed he wouldn’t sign off on the building of the Keystone Pipeline unless it was shown that building the pipeline would not contribute to climate change. Because this pipeline crosses from Canada into the US, and through multiple states, the State Department was charged with creating an all-encompassing report on the effects of building the pipeline. The State Department determined that tar sands oil creates more pollution than conventional oil, but that it wouldn’t drastically contribute to climate change because oil companies will extract the tar sands oil even without the pipeline, and that the pipes were safe enough to only leak approximately 500 barrels of oil per year.
The EPA, however, soundly disputes those conclusions. The EPA determined that the State Department’s report inaccurately determined the cost benefit analysis of extracting tar sands oil without the pipeline (meaning that the EPA determined companies would not find it financially viable to extract the oil without the pipeline); greatly under-calculated the amount to which the pipeline would increase carbon emissions and contribute to climate change, and was overly optimistic in finding a small chance of pipes bursting. Perhaps the State Department’s report can be explained, as the media has demonstrated, by the fact that the State Department’s report was conducted by a third party contractor who had multiple financial and fiduciary ties to TransCanada–the company hoping to build the pipeline.
It’s not always clear how we can contribute to stopping climate change. What is clear is that stopping the development of the Keystone Pipeline is a step in the right direction. The State Department’s Open Comment period–in which the public can weigh into the project and advocate either for or against it–doesn’t end until March 5th. You can go here to send a comment to the State Department. Or go here and here to sign the petitions being sent to President Obama; and go here to sign the petition going to Congress. The American public demanding that President Obama reject the Keystone Pipeline could be one of the single most important actions the public could collectively do to combat climate change.