Earth Day 2013: Say No to KXL Tar Sands Pipeline

Tar sands mine in Alberta


Credit: Peter Essick/National Geographic

Today is Earth Day and, barring any last-minute change, it's also the final day the public can send the State Department our comments on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.             

Here's mine:           

This is a plan to pipe some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet through the breadbasket of America to be refined and shipped overseas through the Gulf of Mexico.

It's not in our national interest. It's a profit scheme for big oil. It would feed our addiction to fossil fuels, accelerate climate change and put our heartland farmers, ranchers and communities at risk. It needs to be denied.

The State Department needs to understand all this. Because the tar sands pipeline would cross our international border with Canada, the State Department must decide whether to approve the project.

The criteria: Is the project in our national interest?

It's not, and here's why.

The purpose of this pipeline is to get Canadian tar sands crude to international markets. Otherwise, it makes little economic sense to expand the mining of tar sands.

This pipeline, in other words, is essential to increasing tar sands production.

Oil companies claim that, if the pipeline isn't approved, they'll ship tar sands crude by rail instead. They won't. It's too expensive to support significant tar sands expansion, as Reuters reported just last week.

For a full analysis as to why rail is not a viable option, see my colleague Anthony Swift’s April 10 testimony on the subject before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

And, here’s the problem. Tar sands production is one of the most destructive industrial practices ever devised.

To get at these tar sands, oil companies must gut Canada's boreal forest, one of the last truly wild places on Earth.

I have been to Alberta and seen first-hand the devastation of tar sands production.

Oil companies have already gouged out of the boreal forest an industrial waste zone the size of Chicago. And that's only the beginning, if big oil has its way.

Oil companies get at the tar sands either by strip mining the forest or drilling down and injecting steam into the ground to soften up the tar sands so it can be brought to the surface.

Either way, companies have to mine at least two tons of sand to squeeze out a single barrel of tar sands crude called bitumen, a low-grade, high-sulphur hydrocarbon that has to have the daylights refined out of it to be turned into fuel.

Producing tar sands crude is so energy intensive that it generates up to 4.5 times more climate-changing carbon emissions as the production of conventional crude oil. (To learn more, go here to page 6.)

In fact, producing, refining and burning tar sands the KXL pipeline would increase our carbon footprint as much as putting up to 4.3 million additional cars on the road, the Congressional Research Service reported last month.

That’s the wrong direction for our country.

And then there's the pipeline itself, which would cut through high plains states that are home to more than 250,000 ranches and farms, crossing nearly 1,500 American waterways, from the Yellowstone River in Montana to Pine Island Bayou in Texas.

It is in our national interest to protect all that, not expose it to the risk of the kind of pipeline failure that gushed some 200,000 gallons of tar sands crude into a residential community in Mayflower, Arkansas, just last month.

Nor are such accidents rare.

Over the past two decades, we've had 5,611 pipeline failures that have killed 367 people, injured nearly 1,500 more and spilled more than 100 million gallons of oil into our waters and over our lands.           

Why should we expose the breadbasket of America to that kind of risk?

The oil industry claims it will create jobs. But the industry has vastly overstated its case.

Based on the industry’s own numbers, the State Department shows that the project would involve a series of short-term construction periods lasting several months each.

“When expressed as average annual employment,” the State Department concludes, “this equates to approximately 3,900 jobs,” during the period of peak construction.

Only 10 percent of those would be local hires, as most of the work requires specialized skills.

In fact, the State Department concludes, the project would create just 35 permanent jobs. That is not a typo: 35 permanent jobs. Tops.

Every job is important.

But is it really in our national interest to put at risk 1,500 American waterways, uncounted acres of fertile croplands, and the actual jobs of ranchers and farmers - millions of them - who have tilled these lands for generations, for the sake of 35 permanent jobs?

Is it really in our national interest to promote the destruction of the boreal forest to produce some of the dirtiest oil on the planet?

And is it really in our national interest - the good of us all - to invest in perpetuating our costly and dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, knowing that it is this addiction that is driving the climate change that threatens our future?

No, it is not.

On this Earth Day, we need to stand up, every one of us, and say exactly that to the State Department.

Our campaign to put a stop to the tar sands pipeline is part of a broader effort to advance the clean energy future we need to strengthen our economy, make our country more secure and address the single greatest environmental ill of our time: climate change.

That means investing in wind, solar and other renewable power sources, and building the energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces of tomorrow.

It means reducing the carbon emissions from our single largest source – the power plants that kick out 40 percent of our national carbon footprint.

It means recognizing that we cannot build a 21st Century economy on the dirty fuels of the past, when we must promote the clean energy solutions that can power us into the future.

And it means putting an end to those destructive practices we know will only make matters worse, starting with the KXL tar sands pipeline.

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