By Stefanie Herweck
In the coming weeks President Obama will make one of the most fateful decisions of his presidency: whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. The pipeline would transport liquefied tar sands across the United States for export on the Texas Gulf Coast.
On Sunday protesters formed a human chain around the White House in an effort to remind the president of his own words on the campaign trail: “Let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”
“Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and it is hard to imagine how mining, transporting, and burning it will help bring to life Obama’s words. It is also hard to think of a project with more terrible consequences for Texas, and for the world.
A Canadian corporation, Transcanada, wants to build the 1,980 mile long pipeline from the tar sands oil mines in Alberta, Canada across the American heartland to the Texas Gulf Coast. Because the pipeline crosses the U.S. – Canada border, it is up to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to approve or reject it.
The tar sands underlie 54,000 square miles of boreal forest that is prized for its biodiversity. Every spring more than half of North America’s birds flock there to nest. As a boreal forest, it is also uniquely suited to absorb carbon emissions, and it stores twice as much carbon as a tropical forest.
Since the tar sands lie near the surface, these forests are completely obliterated during the mining process. As these forests are destroyed, critical habitat is lost and stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Where the forest once stood, companies dig massive open pit mines and create toxic tailing ponds so big they can be seen from space. As of June 2009, 32,000 square miles of boreal forest had been leased to companies for tar sands extraction.
In the ground tar sands are a mixture of 90 percent sand, clay and water and 10 percent bitumen, a thick hydrocarbon liquid. Steam is used to extract the bitumen, which requires 4 barrels of water and a significant amount of natural gas for every barrel of oil. The lakes of waste water left over from this process cover 22 percent of the mined land and are so toxic that they have killed entire flocks of birds that were unlucky enough to land on them.
Because the bitumen is so thick – the consistency of peanut butter – it must be diluted with volatile natural gas compounds in order to make it flow through a pipeline. It is heavier and more corrosive than conventional oil, so the Keystone XL pipeline would be far more likely subject to leak. In fact, the first stage of the Keystone tar sands pipeline had 14 accidents in its first year of operation.
The pipeline’s path across the Ogallala aquifer makes the potential for leaks especially alarming. More than a quarter of the water for crops grown in the United States comes from this aquifer, and millions depend on it for drinking water. Nebraska’s Republican Governor, Dave Heineman, has called upon the State Department to deny Transcanada’s permit request out of fear that spills of tar sands oil could prove catastrophic for the state’s water supply.
The proposed path of the pipeline will also cross hundreds of heartland farms. Transcanada is already suing landowners in Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas under eminent domain, even though the project has not been approved. Many have questioned whether a foreign corporation can use eminent domain against U.S. citizens, but the flurry of lawsuits has not slowed.
When tar sands oil arrives at a refinery it is laden with toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, and metals like mercury, lead, nickel and vanadium. Refineries in Port Arthur that process tar sands will therefore produce, and release, much more hazardous waste than conventional oil refineries.
According to the EPA, the entire process of extracting and refining tar sands oil from well to gas tank produces 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. Transporting and burning the Keystone XL pipeline’s tar sands would add 27 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere per year.
Beyond this, the sheer scope of the tar sands deposits make Obama’s pipeline decision a grave one indeed. The tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet. If we begin tapping them rather than switching to renewable energy sources, it would mean, in the words of James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “essentially game-over” for all hope of reversing climate change.
Thanks to the drought, we already have a taste about what out-of-control climate change could do to Texas. Most climate projections show a continued decline in precipitation for Texas and an increase in temperatures. This is likely to have serious economic impacts in a state with a $100 billion agricultural sector that employs 1 out of 7 workers.
Warming temperatures and thermal expansion of the ocean led to a tripling of sea level rise during the 20th century. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate, Gulf Coast waters could rise as much as 1 meter by 2100, a rise that could submerge Texas coastal communities and make others far more vulnerable to storms. One study of the Houston-Galveston area found that sea level rise could displace 100,000 people over the next 100 years and mean a loss of $12 billion in infrastructure. The beaches of South Padre Island could disappear beneath the waves.
Some are claiming that in these tough economic times, we should sacrifice the environment for energy security and economic benefits. Unfortunately, the Keystone XL pipeline provides neither.
Reducing America’s reliance on Middle-eastern oil is one argument that Transcanada has repeatedly put forward. Though they have denied that Keystone XL is an export pipeline, analysts have determined that the diesel fuel most easily refined from tar sands oil will only find lucrative markets in Europe and Latin America. In fact, the published business model for the Valero refinery at the end of the pipeline explicitly states that the diesel would be exported to foreign markets, rather than put into U.S. gas tanks.
The United States won’t derive significant tax revenue from the tar sands oil before it heads overseas because the refineries at the pipeline’s end are located in Port Arthur, Texas. Port Arthur’s designation as a foreign trade zone means that the refined diesel can be exported tax-free. The benzene and other pollutants released by the refining process are all that will stay in Port Arthur.
Transcanada has claimed that 100,000 jobs would be created by its pipeline. As pressure on the Obama administration to stop the pipeline has gone up, Transcanada’s job estimate has soared to as high as 250,000. The American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of oil corporations, has gone so far as to claim that, “U.S. jobs supported by Canadian oil sands development could grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs by 2035.” Of course, these rapidly inflating numbers all come from the company who stands to reap huge profits from exporting tar sands oil oversees without paying any export taxes if they can sell the administration on their pipeline.
For those of us who do not serve on the board of directors of Transcanada or Valero, any economic benefits from the pipeline will be minimal. An independent analysis of the economic impacts of the pipeline estimated that nationwide there would be between 500 and 1,400 temporary construction jobs would come from building the pipeline. Once the pipeline is up and running those jobs would evaporate, and it would take as few as 50 full time employees maintain it.
While those 50 people may be happy to receive a paycheck, their side of the balance sheet is far outweighed by the health costs of those who will be exposed to toxic chemicals in Canada and Texas, not to mention the millions of coastal residents around the world whose homes and communities will be threatened by rising seas.
This is why the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group is supporting protesters from the Rio Grande Valley who boarded the Rio Bravo Wildlife Institute’s vegetable-oil powered bus for the long drive to Washington DC. They joined thousands of other Americans to demand that President Obama uphold the vision and the promises that got him elected.
The ultimate decision will be President Obama’s. Will he cave in to corporate pressure and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or will he stand with the American people, and people around the world, who will suffer the terrible consequences if this pipeline is built? This is not a political question to be decided by poll numbers and the next election. President Obama’s decision will have a real impact on human lives, on human health, and on the world that our children grow up in. This may be the most important decision that President Obama makes, and it is up to all of us to ensure that he makes the right choice.
Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group. She lives in McAllen. This article originally appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian.