Decision on Canadian tar sands pipeline is chance for Obama to fulfill an environmental promise

September 1, 2011
By Russell Powell
New Haven Register

SIXTY-five people, including me, were arrested Aug. 20 and spent the weekend in jail for holding a nonviolent sit-in in front of the White House. It was the first day of a planned two weeks of civil disobedience, where thousands from across the country would sit down to demonstrate against the proposed construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Tapping the tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada, has been called the most destructive project on Earth. Alberta’s once-pristine boreal forest, a wilderness the size of Florida, produces crude oil. To extract it from the tar sands requires more water than a city of 2 million people, and an astounding 36 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted every day.

Developing the process has created the biggest industrial development in the world. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, called tar sands development an epic undertaking, akin to building the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall of China, only bigger.

The effects on the environment and human health have been disastrous. A virtual wasteland has replaced one of the largest, and last, unspoiled forests in the world.

Each day, the project produces more carbon — which heats the atmosphere, causing erratic weather — than 1.3 million cars. Its wastewater runs into the ground and nearby rivers, affecting local people, who have cancer rates nearly 400 times that of other Canadians.

Keystone XL is a proposed pipeline to move crude oil from the tar sands to oil refineries in Texas. It would be the first in a massive network of pipelines that potentially could extend into New England. It poses serious risks of further environmental degradation and to public health. The Keystone pipeline, Keystone XL’s smaller precursor, has been in operation just one year and already has leaked 12 times.

Keystone XL’s planned route from Canada through six states crosses some of America’s great wilderness and agricultural areas.

The pipeline would cross the Oglalla Aquifer, a vast yet shallow water source that reaches across Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. A leak in the pipeline would have disastrous consequences for this aquifer, which provides 27 percent of the water for irrigated U.S. farmland and drinking water for 82 percent of the people who live in the aquifer’s territory.

Proponents of Keystone XL cite more jobs and less dependency on overseas oil.

Both arguments are myopic. Construction of a 1,700-mile pipeline will undoubtedly create some jobs, but they will be short-term and disappear when construction ends. And while dependence on overseas oil might decline somewhat, the greenhouse gases Keystone XL would bring are far too high a cost.

Since the pipeline needs approval of the U.S. State Department, its fate rests solely with President Barack Obama. He could kill Keystone XL, which author and environmentalist Bill McKibben has called a potential “1,700-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent.”

I am one of thousands of concerned citizens who have decided to risk arrest by sitting-in outside the White House, demonstrating to the president that he has the popular support for making the courageous decision to stop Keystone XL. It is a chance for him to make good on his promise that, under his administration, “the oceans will begin to slow their rise and the planet will begin to heal.”

Russell Powell is a student at Yale Divinity School and an environmental advocate. He can be reached at  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).