If approved, the Keystone XL Pipeline will lock the U.S. into a Long-Term Dependence on Dirty Oil from the Alberta Oil Sands

by Sarah Risser

TransCanada hopes the U.S. Department of State will approve the Keystone XL, a multi-billion dollar, 1,702 mile expansion to its existing Keystone pipeline, later this year. The expansion would facilitate the transport of an additional 900,000 barrels of heavy crude per day from Alberta Canada’s environmentally destructive oil sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast in Texas.

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credit: US Dept of State

The State Department will issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of Keystone XL later this month; however, EPA officials found the first two drafts to be far from satisfactory, giving the first draft its lowest grade of inadequate last year. Once the Final EIS is complete, a 90-day review period will commence during which interested federal agencies may comment on whether a Presidential Permit would be in the national interest.

The State Department has hinted that it may approve Keystone XL in the name of energy security and in response to pressure from oil interests. Yet, the problems associated with enabling the development of Canadian oil sands are both complicated and dangerous and far outweigh the benefits of perceived energy security. 

Particularly concerning is the vast amounts of energy required to mine, transport and refine Alberta’s bitumen making it considerably more green-house gas intensive than conventional oil.  Many believe that Alberta’s tar sands are the largest pool of carbon on the continent; the federal government’s pre-eminent climate scientist, James Hansen, said recently that if we begin burning Tar Sands Oil in large quantities, it’s “essentially game over” for the climate. Others have described the pipeline as a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.

Further, the development of the Alberta Tar Sands highlights our addiction to oil and the fact that we are increasingly dependent on unconventional or “extreme” oil supplies. In Alberta, for example, oil companies pursue energy intensive and destructive mining operations that require the complete removal of the boreal forest along with all the soils, wetlands and wildlife they support. As Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation said: “The answer to our oil addiction doesn’t lie in simply switching suppliers. America has a mounting energy deficit, and our economy is leaking oil money. . .Almost anywhere that oil is drilled, we end up sending our money to the same big oil companies—the same companies that pocketed hundreds of billions in windfall profits when gas prices were last this high.”

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credit: David Dodge, Pembina Institute www.oilsandswatch.org

This underscores arguably the most concerning aspect of promoting infrastructure that would enable further development of the Alberta Tar Sands: Completion of the Keystone XL Pipeline would lock us into a dependence on expensive foreign oil at a time when we badly need to be developing clean home-grown energy solutions such as an increased emphasis on conservation, promoting innovations in our transportation and fuels sectors that are less polluting and further exploring the use of renewable energy sources.  This strategy would not only begin to heal the planet but would also secure energy independence and create long-term jobs in Minnesota and throughout the United States.

The ultimate decision on whether TransCanada can expand Tar Sands infrastructure throughout the United States via completion of the Keystone XL Pipeline rests with President Obama. In this case he does not need approval from congress. In this case the Tea Party has essentially no leverage. Given this, environmental groups are hoping they might have a greater influence on this important environmental decision. Bill McKibben is organizing protestors to urge Obama to deny TransCanada a permit for the Keystone XL. Protestors will gather outside the White House this month, purportedly dressed professionally and wearing Obama campaign buttons.

Here in Minnesota momentum is gathering on this issue as well. Sierra Club is teaming up with a multi-state campaign, Americans Against Big Oil Ripoffs, and recently hired Steve Schultz to put pressure on the Obama Administration to make sure this project is not permitted.  Schultz is also working with a number of key groups, including farmers, who may be hit particularly hard by a potential rise in gas prices. If you’d like to learn more about the campaign and get involved he can be reached at Steve.Schultz@sierraclub.org.

Expanding our dependence on Canadian oil will ultimately weaken our economy as we send our dollars, again, out of the country when they should be invested at home. In addition this will lead to continued destruction of the boreal forest and increase greenhouse gas emissions.  This is simply not something we can afford.

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