What better time to say no to new tar sands pipeline than during the international climate negotiations?

Listening to the discussions in Cancún at the climate negotiations, I wondered what would happen if delegates focused on actions that are undermining reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the countries here should take a look at some domestic decision coming up where they have the choice between clean and dirty energy – and take the opportunity of the international climate negotiations to announce their clean energy choice. For the United States, this would mean saying no to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

The negotiations are attempting to strengthen an international structure to reduce climate change. And along the way, countries are highlighting the actions they are taking at home to put clean energy in place. But hidden in the shadows are the actions still going on that promote the dirty energy economy – one that is dependent on ever higher-carbon sources of fossil fuels such as tar sands oil from Canada.

In particular, the United States is in the middle of making a decision that will have an enormous impact on tar sands oil expansion. The same State Department that in Cancún is debating ways to fight climate change, is seriously considering granting a permit to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. How can the State Department reconcile a commitment to fight climate change and to promote clean energy with issuing a permit that will cause expansion of the environmentally destructive and high-carbon tar sands? The simple fact is that tar sands and clean energy do not fit together. A world in which we are moving towards clean energy must be a world in which we are moving away from dirty fuels such as tar sands.  

Let’s put the facts about tar sands and this proposed tar sands pipeline on the table. The extraction of tar sands destroys Canada’s Boreal forests and wetlands, depletes precious watersheds, pollutes air and water, creates vast expanses of toxic waste holding dams, and uses a lot of energy causing high greenhouse gas emissions. Tar sands pipelines are at higher risk of ruptures and leaks due to carrying a more corrosive substance than conventional oil. The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is little better than a pollution delivery system to the United States, putting the sensitive Nebraska sand hills and the Ogallala Aquifer (the source of freshwater for America’s heartland) at risk and bringing tar sands to refineries in areas of the United States already burdened with pollution from the oil industry.

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline could bring as much as an additional 900,000 barrels per day of tar sands into the United States for processing in the U.S. Gulf Coast – from where it could remain in the United States  or be shipped overseas from the Gulf Coast ports. This pipeline is hardly a recipe for energy security in the same way that measures that reduce our dependence on oil and measures that move us towards environmentally sustainable renewable energy are. In fact, the additional greenhouse gas emissions just from the extraction of tar sands oil undermine the gains that we are making in the United States with vehicle efficiency standards and other measures to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, as illustrated in a recent report from the National Wildlife Federation.  

Even more startling however, was the story pieced together by Climate Action Network Canada about how tar sands interests have driven the government of Canada to systematically try to undermine policies that promote low carbon fuels in the United States and Europe. If this is what dependence on a fuel such as tar sands does to the environmental integrity of a country, tar sands is clearly not the right path for the United States at a time when we are trying to take real action to curb climate change.

The United States should say no to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. But barring that, what should the next step be in their decision-making process? The Keystone XL pipeline draft environmental impact statement was woefully inadequate. The State Department has received many comments asking for new analysis. What is needed is a supplemental environmental impact statement with a new comment period. It is reasonable to expect the State Department to listen to the comments of government agencies, the Congress, and the public as summarized by my colleague Liz Barratt-Brown in her blog. The State Department needs to take the time to get the analysis of the environmental and safety impacts of this pipeline right. And Cancún is a perfect place for the United States to announce this decision that is so much more consistent with what it professes to want on climate change than pushing ahead with a final environmental impact statement would be.

It is time for the United States to lead us away from dirty, high-carbon fuels such as tar sands. Especially now that the United States has not yet passed a climate law – the world is watching what other action we take on clean energy and climate change. It is time for us to lead by making it clear that dirty fuels such as tar sands do not fit in a world where curbing climate change is the top priority for our security, safety and health.