0. What Are Tar Sands and Why Are They So Good or Bad?
The Keystone XL pipeline would make it profitable to extract, refine, and burn oil from the Alberta tar sands. These tar sands are an unconventional petroleum source–unconventional mainly because they are very bituminous. That means you’ve basically got mud, clay, or dirt mixed with a very sticky (bituminous) form of oil. Getting the oil out of this muddy mixture is water-intensive and has only become economically viable with the worldwide rise in the price of oil. Tar sands oil must also be heated in order to be viscous enough to flow. It’s not low-hanging fruit as far as fossil fuels go. Due to its unconventional qualities, tar sands oil is generally considered to generate between 10 and 20% more greenhouse gases in terms of lifetime cost.
This alone is cause for environmentalists worried about carbon pollution to oppose the use of tar sands oil. Many in the oil and politics sectors say that this 12% number is nothing to worry about, as it is comparable with California heavy oil, which is already being extracted. THIS IS TERRIBLE LOGIC! What on earth suggests that because you’re already doing one thing that’s bad, it’s okay to do a second? (Hat tip to Dave Roberts’ excellent article “Debunking Nature’s Argument for Keystone“, a key source material for me).
Ultimately the concern for tar sands’ greenhouse-gas-intensiveness is probably the worst thing about Keystone. Before looping back to that, however, I want to touch on a number of other reasons why KXL (as I’ll call it from now on) is a bad idea.
1. Spills Happen
In the past three years there have been two major spills and numerous smaller ones, including incidents this year in Arkansas and Utah, killing a total of 76 people. The Arkansas spill was much larger, but the Utah one bears examining, because it illustrates a core problem with the way pipelines are regulated in America. Chevron’s Utah pipeline has leaked three times in the past three years, demonstrating a chilling pattern of negligence. Because pipelines are so long and large, the federal government relies upon corporations to self-examine and self-report to a large degree. The most recent Chevron leak is believed to be due to a pipe cracked at the seam–a problem, since Chevron had reported to the government that the pipe was a safer seamless version.
The lesson is, spills happen, and more than we would be led to believe (access to the Arkansas spill is being tightly controlled by Exxon, which obviously doesn’t want word to get out that they caused 22 homes to be evacuated). The possibility of a Keystone spill cannot be ignored. Examining the potential ramifications of such a spill yields dire results. KXL directly traverses the invaluable Ogallala aquifer, which provides freshwater to much of the heartlands of America (supporting 2 million people’s drinking water and $20billion in agriculture).
Why does anyone think this is safe? Cardno Entrix, the Houston energy consulting organization tasked with providing an environmental review for the project, says so; but there’s a bit of a conflict of interest there, since a) building the pipeline would be a boon to Houston’s energy economy, and therefore to Cardno Entrix, and b) the company has a cozy relationship with TransCanada, having completed favorable reviews for many of their previous projects.
A spill could damage the aquifer for centuries to come. Based on the precautionary principle, we shouldn’t be willing to risk such a catastrophe.
2. Native Sovereignty
“The only people in America opposed are extreme environmentalists and liberal activists,” wrote my friend.
We all know that indigenous people aren’t real Americans… oh wait.
Breaking news. The indigenous people of the Americas have been here for something like 11000 years.
I doubt the person who posted this meant to so blatantly marginalize the voices of the thousands of Native Americans opposed to Keystone XL–it is possible he simply did not know that the vice president of the Oglala Lakota tribe has called Keystone a “snake spitting black venom into our water,” it is probable he hadn’t heard that Canadian aboriginal groups have blockaded roads leading to pipeline construction sites, and he certainly wasn’t there at the February protest in San Francisco where I heard Native leaders lead thousands in anti-KXL chants and peace songs. Many of the proposed pipelines–not just KXL, but also the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines to the Pacific–violate numerous treaties made between the US/Canadian governments and tribal governments. Native American leaders are among the greatest heroes of the Fossil Fuel Resistance.
It’s not like this is anything new, but that’s doesn’t make it any less terrible. The treatment of Native Americans is one of the blackest marks upon the history of the United States. Past evil on our part does not excuse present evil. If they don’t want to pipeline through their land, shouldn’t we respect that at least?
(The problem isn’t limited to Native Americans, either–at least 60 eminent domain cases have been filed to take land away from Americans to lay down the pipeline.)
4. “30,000 Jobs”
This is basically a joke. The original study was paid for by TransCanada, not an impartial third party. That study suggested we could expect job creation on the order of 20,000–13,500 from construction jobs and 6,500 from supply chain jobs. One problem with that: TransCanada’s president admitted to the Washington Post that the 13,500 number actually wasn’t jobs but job-years, meaning you have to divide that number by two (for number of years of expected construction). The supply chain jobs number is also too high, as many of the jobs would be created outside of America ($1.7bn of steel has already been purchased from a Russian-owned mill in Canada), and TransCanada now admits that only 65% of the steel will be purchased from American sources. The only full impartial study, conducted by Cornell’s Global Labor Initiative, said that any job creation would likely be more than offset by economic costs of environmental destruction–in other words, they called bullshit.
5. Will Keystone Reduce Dependence on Foreign Oil?
The claim that Keystone will reduce dependence on foreign oil appeals to individuals on both sides of the partisan divide. Conservatives traditionally believe in self-reliance (not really a characteristic of late capitalism, but hey), and liberals recall the bitter taste of the Iraq War, which many see as a symptom of reliance on foreign oil. So it’s an appealing claim. Too bad it’s not so wonderful in reality.
First, the Keystone pipeline is being built so that tar sands can be exported around the world. The entire point of the pipeline is to get the oil to a port so that it can be shipped elsewhere. If the pipeline was just for fueling America, it wouldn’t need to go to Houston. The refineries that will connect to Keystone are already exporting 60% of their product; when KXL is finished, that number will only increase. Keystone is an export pipeline–and it could cause higher prices in the Midwest, counter to rosy predictions from politicians.
Secondly, and more importantly, American dependence on foreign oil is rapidly decreasing anyway. Rapidly increasing production combined with decreased demand–mainly from increased fuel standards and flagging economic growth–means America is importing less and less every year, with no signs the trend won’t close the gap entirely within the next decade or two. In fact, America became a net fuel exporter last year for the first time since 1949, thanks largely to the efforts of the EPA. (We are still net oil importers, but this is predicted to change by 2025, by none other than Exxon.) We don’t need the KXL pipeline in order to become less dependent on foreign oil. In fact, the International Energy Agency predicts US oil output will surpass Saudi Arabia’s by 2020, putting us well on our way to energy independence. Finally, by far the the best way to become less dependent on foreign oil is to become less dependent on oil, period.
6. “Extremely Profitable for Investors”
Elsewhere I’ve hewn to a strictly factual refutation of the KXL pipeline. I can’t refute this statement: in fact, I agree one hundred percent. I just fail to see why on earth this counts as validation. “It will make rich people richer.” There are more complicated arguments to be made here, but I’ll pass over them; they aren’t the ultimate reason why we should oppose KXL.
7. “…and Really Terrible For Everyone Else”
I hope my friend has considered these arguments as I have: carefully and with an open mind. If they have not swayed him, I’ll close the loop by returning to my first and ultimate appeal.
The reason why we must oppose KXL is the same reason we must oppose fracking, mountaintop removal, and all forms of coal: fossil fuel has got to go. The science on climate change is solid, and yet here we are, fiddling while Rome–and the rest of Earth–burns. Global weirding will have unforeseen consequences–hence “weirding.” There are good things that might happen–vast tracts of Siberia could become arable. But there are also bad things that could happen–the jet stream that keeps England warm could be cut off, severely altering its hospitable climate–and extremely terrible things that could happen, like systemic drought and famine across Africa resulting in centuries of struggle and resource conflict. Then there are the things we know will happen. 80% of Arctic ice has already melted. We are already in the middle of an epochal mass extinction event, all of it precipitated by human activity, resulting in catastrophic loss of biological capital. Lexi told me that in a recent conversation with a climate scientist left her with the impression a ten degree Celsius change is more likely than two (which everyone already agreed would be pretty bad).
If you’re put off by climate change, consider the “other CO2 problem,” ocean acidification. Rising carbon levels in our water have disrupted vital chemical processes at the base of marine food chains, with dire ecosystem implications. Consider this: at the rate we’re going it’s unlikely there will be coral reefs–the rainforests of the sea–by the time you have grandchildren. The transition to a new energy economy offers a number of benefits–energy independence, innovation, pollution reduction, jobs–but it’s the specter of what will happen if we don’t change that should be driving us forward far, far, far faster than we are currently moving. Civilizational collapse is a thing people are talking about.
It’s bizarre to me how often individuals suggest that climate change is a hoax or inside job: for that to make any sense, there has to be an interested party. The climate scientists who have been speaking out about climate change since the 1980s don’t have a dog in this fight. What do they have to gain from perpetrating such a hoax? You could suppose that maybe they will invent a solar cell and get rich by converting everyone to believe solar cells are “good”–but that makes no sense, because climate scientists aren’t electrical engineers or chemists or materials scientists or any of the other professions necessary to invent a solar cell, and they’re most likely not rich enough to be big investors who could get wealthier by investing in a solar cell company. It just doesn’t add up–if it’s a conspiracy, who’s winning?
It’s precisely the opposite when you look at climate change skepticism. The number one instigators of climate skepticism are fossil fuel companies, who have everything to lose. The present set-up gives them billion-dollar profits year after year. Why would they want to change that arrangement?
More importantly–why would we want to let them keep that arrangement, given how much we have to lose?