Guest Column: Keystone XL oil pipeline simply a bad idea

By Richard Bunch

The Keystone XL oil pipeline is a bad idea from all perspectives. Producing oil from tar sands is economical only if oil prices remain at $70 or more per barrel. At that price, wind energy is already more economical.

The Keystone Pipeline System is a pipeline system to transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, and further to the U.S. Gulf Coast.” — Source: Wikipedia

Most solar and wind alternatives are highly technology based. As the technology and production methods become more efficient and less expensive, costs per energy unit will decrease. Also, these technologies are scalable in size.

None of the above is true for oil from tar sands. Cultivating oil from tar sands requires large, expensive earth-moving and mining equipment, a new network of roads, abundant ground water, huge tracts of land, large pumps, valves, motors and a huge oil pipeline. In the end, much of the land is unusable for anything else and is highly polluted.

The most optimistic estimates are that oil from tar sands will create some 20,000 jobs at a cost of about $1 million per job. The cost is high because it is not labor intensive, since it depends heavily on the use of very large, highly automated equipment.

About 98 percent of all climatologists agree that manmade greenhouse gases are significantly altering the global climate. In addition, 32 national science academies issued a joint statement that global warming is unequivocal, and human activity is the main driver. This includes all G8 nations, and Brazil, China and India.

The oil from tar sands will radically increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. NASA’s Dr. James Hansen believes using this oil will make it impossible to get back to the kind of global climate that existed in preindustrial times. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Record states the tar sands contain at least 400 gigatons of carbon, enough to increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 50 percent above the current level of 390 parts per million (ppm [.0390 percent by volume of the atmosphere]). Most climatologists believe carbon dioxide has to be reduced to 350 ppm to avoid the worst kind of extreme weather and sea level rises.

The economic, human and environmental cost of climate change is already being expressed in an escalating series of extreme weather events. Records that have stood for centuries are being broken. As the number of such events escalates, and this parallels rising carbon dioxide levels, it has become imperative to conduct statistical assessments on how much each event is the result of natural weather variability versus greenhouse gases. That is exactly what NOAAs Earth System Research Lab and the U.K.’s Hadley Centre at Exeter have been doing.

By looking at trend lines for extreme weather events, we can see this is not a simple small numeric increase from year to year. In fact, 2010 and 2011 absolutely shattered all records for the number and magnitude of extreme weather events.

Just a few examples among dozens: 2010 was the hottest year on record, and 21 nations set new high temps. It had the most extreme winter arctic atmospheric circulation, causing an upside-down winter, i.e., one in which Canada had its warmest and driest winter, while the U.S. had its coldest winter in 25 years.

The arctic sea ice was the lowest volume on record, setting both summer and winter records. Greenland had the greatest loss of melting ice and record warm water temps along the Western coast, resulting in record amounts of iceberg calvings.

The second-largest shift from a strong El Nino to a strong La Nina occurred over the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Coral reefs took their second-largest beating in 2010. The Amazon rainforest experienced two 100-year droughts within five years, i.e., on average that second drought would occur about 100 years later, not five years later. This is like going to the casino and hitting a very large jackpot on two slot machines right next to one another.

The full list of all these events is on

These extreme weather events are occurring exactly where expected, in regions that have a very small number of weather-generating systems, that lack ecological and atmospheric biodiversity and natural buffers to extreme variations in weather. The areas with the largest temperature increases, semi-arid, and border oceans or melting glaciers are the most susceptible. But this will get worse as global temps increase and the length of spring and fall increase.

The decision to build the Keystone XL pipeline is in the hands of President Barack Obama. It has gone through all the environmental review steps. For all the reasons cited above, it is urgently important that you urge the president not to approve this pipeline.

Richard Bunch is a Rockford resident.

From the Nov. 2-8, 2011, issue

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