Representatives ask Obama to examine impacts of tar sands pipeline


In late June, the Obama Administration received a letter [PDF] from fifty members of the U.S. House of Representatives, demanding that the President take a hard look at the climate change impacts of a proposed oil pipeline that would more than double the United States’ consumption of Canadian tar sands oil. This 1,600-mile oil pipeline, called Keystone XL, would transport 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Canada to the Gulf Coast, impacting natural resources, indigenous nations, and agricultural activity along the route.

In the wake of the BP disaster, the signatories to the letter expressed their concerns over the “significant energy and environment implications for our nation for many years to come” that would result if the Department of State issued the Presidential Permit for the pipeline. The authors cautioned that the pipeline “has the potential to undermine America’s clean energy future and international leadership on climate change.” At this critical moment in our nation’s energy consumption trajectory, will the Obama Administration heed this call?

These representatives called the President’s attention to the environmental devastation that would result from this pipeline, including the damage that would occur before the oil even reached the pipeline itself. Tar sands, a mixture of sand, clay and bitumen, lie preserved beneath the boreal forests of Canada; development of these oil sands entails dire environmental consequences. Thousands of tons of subterranean oil sands are extracted from the ground each day in Alberta, destroying the land above it – which accounts for about half of the world’s remaining boreal forest.

To process the oil sands requires vast amounts of water and energy: more than two barrels of water per barrel of oil, and 30 percent of the energy within a barrel of oil to produce it. And oil sands extraction and processing results in three times greater carbon emissions than does conventional oil production.

Indigenous Canadian tribal nations such as the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, and the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation experience severe negative health and environmental impacts resulting from the oil sands operations. Most of these communities still maintain a subsistence diet of wild fish and fowl, and so come into close contact with extractive industry’s toxic detritus in the water, soil and animals. For example, 100 of Fort Chipewyan’s 1,200 residents have died from cancer because of the increased presence of toxic pollutants due to tar sands extraction.

The pipeline itself would cause further environmental and cultural damage – with dubious benefits. Crossing natural, agrarian, and populated environments across eight states, including significant and fragile natural resources such as the already-threatened Ogallala Aquifer and Nebraska’s Sand Hills, the proposed pipeline may not even operate close to its capacity. Moreover, the project proponents seek to build the pipeline using thinner and potentially substandard [PDF] steel, and to pump oil at a higher-than-usual pressure at the source, further exacerbating the potential for seeps and spills on land and in water.

Tribe members throughout every state along the pipeline route still conduct traditional hunting, fishing, cultivation and harvesting activities on public and tribal lands. The pipeline could impact these traditional hunting and subsistence areas, by creating new access and multiple rights-of-way to these areas, and through pipeline construction, operation, and especially any potential spill incidents.

The authors of the June 23 letter strongly cautioned the Obama Administration against approving the pipeline without a full and fair review of its climate change impacts. This pipeline represents an opportunity for this Administration to make good on its climate promises by weighing the true, comprehensive costs of the pipeline against its purported benefits – and then disapproving the project.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at [email protected].

Tar Sand protest photo from Flickr user Diane Worth, used via a Creative Commons license.

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