New Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Will Lock U.S. into Dangerous Consequences

When I traveled to the tar sands oil fields in Northern Alberta a week ago, I was struck by the vastness of the operations. Massive open pits and contaminated settling ponds covered miles of what used to be boreal forest. The scale seemed enormous to me, yet many developers view this as just the beginning.

Energy companies believe they can more than triple the production of tar sands oil, but one of the main constraints is delivery: unless the tar sands fields are linked by pipeline to more markets, there is a limit to how much they can grow.

That barrier could soon be removed. The United States is already the biggest consumer of tar sands oil, and to expand the supply, companies have decided to build a new $7 billion pipeline that will stretch 2,000 miles from Alberta to Texas. We need to resist the siren call of a pipeline that will prove dangerous to our health and environment.

Decisions about pipelines rarely attract a lot of attention, yet they should, because they open up lands for gas and oil development. And every time we expand our fossil fuel infrastructure, we lock ourselves into a string of costly and potentially dangerous consequences.

We saw it with the Deepwater Horizon rig. When BP sank a well one mile below the ocean surface and five miles below the ocean floor, it put itself outside the reach of fast repairs and relief wells. The Gulf’s marine life and its coastal communities are now paying the price for that recklessly sited well.

The new tar sands pipeline could have similarly far reaching impacts. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline’s path through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas takes it right over the Ogallala Aquifer. If the pipe burst, it would spill bitumen into the main source of fresh water for America’s heartland.

Yet to cut costs, the pipeline company has asked the Department of Transportation to waive safety regulations so that it can use less steel in this high pressure pipeline. We all know how well lax regulations worked in the Gulf of Mexico. I cut my teeth as a lawyer on an oil spill when a pipeline burst in New Jersey. I know that oil spills happen and they are no joke on land or in the sea.

Even without a disaster, the pipeline will fuel tar sands expansion, destroying more boreal forest and endangering the health of nearby communities.  It will also dramatically increase global warming pollution: the extraction and processing of tar sands oil creates three times the greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil. Indeed, when you factor in the refining process for tar sands, replacing 900,000 barrels per day of conventional oil with tar sands oil would generate about 38 million metric tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions per year, equal to adding over 6 million cars to the roads.

If we build this pipeline, there is no way that the United States and Canada can meet our carbon reduction goals – forcing us to live in a world that is less safe due to climate change.

The only way to avoid these consequences is to reduce our dependence on oil. Otherwise, we will be stuck bouncing between dirty tar sands in Alberta, deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and imports from despotic regimes from Nigeria to the Middle East.

We don’t have to listen to pipeline supporters who claim that America must choose between exploiting tar sands oil and relying more on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s oil. Those are not the only choices. We can do better. We can decide to shrink our dependence on oil so we don't need either one.

One year ago, President Obama put fuel efficiency standards into place and recently, he extended them to cover more vehicles. With tools like the California low carbon fuel standard we can encourage moving away from fuels such as tar sands. We can embrace home-grown solutions like more efficient cars and trucks, plug-in hybrid engines, electric cars and electrified rail working off a cleaner grid, expanded public transit systems, and biofuels from sustainably obtained waste.

All these solutions are available now. We just need a national clean energy and climate policy to make them more widely available.

And we need to stop the pipeline that will take us in the wrong direction. NRDC is calling on the U.S. State Department to do a full review of the safety, environmental, and public health consequences of this project. There is no need to rush this pipeline through—not when ecosystems and communities from Alberta to Texas are at stake.