Keystone XL Pipeline: Dirty Gold for Uncle Sam?

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Last week, in the middle of a weeklong tour of Asia, Pope Francis touched down in Manila, Philippines. The Catholic leader is known for deviating from papal precedence and making progressive – albeit cautious – comments about the church’s position and role regarding poverty, homosexuality, women in the church, and well-publicized lapses of human decency and morality by Catholic priests and bishops.

While in the Philippines – still recovering from a 2013 typhoon that killed 6,300 people – Pope Francis offered some lofty yet unequivocal views on climate change and the environment:

As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil, and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling… I don’t know if (climate change) is all (man’s fault) but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps nature in the face.

Whoa! Slapping nature in the face??  Talk about being brutally honest!

pope francis

Pope Francis, looking green

In my country (the United States of Amnesia), the biggest environmental issue on the table at the moment is the Keystone XL Pipeline. On one side of the debate are environmentalists and President Obama, who are opposed to construction of this pipeline (although the president continually seems to be “evolving” – or “devolving,” depending on your perspective).

On the other side, shovels poised in their plump little hands, are oil-thirsty conservatives and a Republican-controlled Congress, who support the pipeline’s construction.

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Well, here are a few facts about the pipeline – an abbreviated “Pipeline for Dummies” (like me):

  • Keystone XL is only one of four phases of oil pipeline in the Keystone Pipeline System. The other three, extending from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and comprising 40 percent of the system, have already been constructed and are in operation
  • The sole owner of the Keystone Pipeline System is TransCanada Corporation, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  • Keystone XL will extend from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, extending 1,179 miles across the U.S. Its main controversy centers on its environmental impact, which includes the potential for oil spillage and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (which promotes higher global temperatures, i.e. climate change)
  • The type of oil used in the pipeline is derived from oil sands, or tar sands, or bituminous sands, a mixture of sand, clay, water, and petroleum. Instead of conventional drilling, this glop is strip-mined, then fossil fuels are expended to suck out the crude. A 2011 study by Stanford University identified oil-sand crude as being as much as 22 percent more carbon-intensive than conventional oil
  • Construction of Keystone XL is predicted to last from 1-2 years
  • TransCanada CEO Russ Girling claims Keystone XL will create 42,000 “ongoing, enduring jobs.” But the U.S. State Department counters that only about 50 pipeline maintenance jobs will remain after the 1-2-year  construction
ross girling

TransCanada CEO Ross Girling, in front of “greenish” looking company banner

Will oil from the pipeline lower gas prices? The State Department says it will have no effect. Without tar sands oil, prices have already fallen to around $75 per barrel.

Where will this tar sands oil be marketed? A 2011 study by the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank in Canada, predicts that much of it will be consumed outside of the territorial United States.

Will this “dirty gold” increase global warming? The State Department says oil pumped through the pipeline will not have “any significant effect” on greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the tar sands will be developed even without the pipeline.  But critics of this assessment argue that the pipeline would boost oil production by 830,000 barrels per day; the extraction process will boost carbon emissions; transportation of the oil by train, truck, and barge, will boost greenhouse gas emissions; and production and burning of dirty petroleum coke, a co-product of tar sands oil, results in 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions.

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 Here’s longitudes’ view of the subject:

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Protest against pipeline in Washington, D.C., February 17, 2013

A Canadian company wants to build a pipeline for its oil through the heart of the U.S., then have U.S. refineries process the crude for China and other foreign markets. Despite what the U.S. State Department and TransCanada claim, this oil will have a significant effect on global warming. The pipeline construction will create some American jobs, but these will be temporary.  A pipeline spill could threaten U.S. ecosystems, not to mention Native American cultural and historical sites (though it’s debatable whether many Americans even care about our country’s indigenous peoples). The strip-mine method of oil extraction destroys Alberta forestlands.  Toxic runoff, caused by steaming of the sands to separate the oil, is another environmental threat.

Tar sands oil is to energy what a McDonalds triple quarter-pounder with cheese is to human health: it’s mouth-watering to some, but ultimately it’s carbon-loaded crap that will subvert development of clean, alternative energy sources. And it will have little or no effect on American jobs or gas prices.

Verdict: the cons far outweigh the pros.

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Getting back to Pope Francis… I don’t agree with him on everything, but in this case I have to applaud him for having the guts to stand up for the “beautiful garden” known as planet Earth.

Now, if we could only get a few more clear-thinking tree huggers like the pontiff elected to the ugly cesspool known as the U.S. Congress (current Gallup Poll approval rating: 16 percent).

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

Strip mining to get tar sands oil