By Dave Davis
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama vowed to speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy. He now has the power to take a big step in that direction by denying the permit for the Keystone XL (KXL) Pipeline Project. But he may need a friendly nudge in that direction.
TransCanada, a foreign corporation, seeks to build the KXL pipeline through North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska to ultimately carry Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Texas. The difficult process of extracting oil from tar sands results in lakes of toxic sludge and produces three times more greenhouse gases compared to traditional oil wells.
To extract one barrel of the thick crude oil from the Boreal Forest of Alberta, the source of KXL, the land must be stripped to obtain 4 tons of an earth/sand mixture. The process then involves heating the mixture with natural gas and washing with up to four barrels of fresh water. The result is a thick crude oil requiring enough pressure to push it through the 36-inch pipeline, producing temperatures up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
While many in the media report the pipeline as controversial, there are indisputable concerns. We know TransCanada used Texas eminent domain law to seize property rights from a U.S. land owner for another leg of the pipeline currently under construction. We also know the pipeline will traverse the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to the middle third of our country.
We know Keystone and Enbridge (another Canadian pipeline company) have a history of oil leaks, with 14 pump station leaks occurring in an already completed section of the Keystone pipeline (as reported in U.S. Department of State final environmental impact statement). And we know the Valero Refinery in Houston, one of the destinations of the tar sands oil, has a history of EPA air quality emissions violations.
Groups such as National Wildlife Federation and 350.org have extended lists of KXL concerns, including evidence that the final destination of the refined tar sands oil is not the U.S. and evidence that the result will be increased domestic gasoline prices. However, the most alarming concern is the fact that KXL will dramatically exacerbate the climate crisis.
Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote in a message to the scientific community titled “Silence is Deadly” that approval of KXL will make it “exceedingly difficult” to control the “tar sands monster.” Hansen states that if we add the tar sands to the existing carbon pool, it will be “essentially game over” in the effort to stabilize the climate.
Bill McKibben, in his 350.org “Do the Math” lecture tour, summarized the overwhelming consensus of the world scientific community. McKibben stated that, while we have already raised the temperature of the planet by 0.8 degrees Celsius, we must stay below a 2-degree temperature rise to avoid climate disaster. He also admitted that recent climate events indicate the 2-degree number is too high.
McKibbens continued with the number 565, the number of gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide needed to reach a 2-degree temperature rise, and the fact that five times that amount of carbon already exists in proven oil, gas and coal reserves.
Dr. Hansen added to the discussion by stating the scientific community estimates the carbon in the Canadian tar sands at 400 Gt., thus explaining his “game over” prediction.
Dr. Hansen added that we can conceivably stabilize the climate crisis if we phase out coal emissions over the next few decades and keep unconventional fossil fuels (think tar sands oil) in the ground. This is why President Obama’s upcoming decision is critical. We can all help by contacting the White House (202-456-1111 or whitehouse.gov) with a nudge.
Dave Davis is a resident of Oregon, Ill.
From the Aug. 14-20, 2013, issue