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Guest Opinion: The Keystone XL pipeline — a quixotic objection

Part 1

Objecting not only to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, but to the extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta, is a quixotic charge at a windmill, futile and profoundly wrenching.

Why wrenching? The mining of tar sands is so egregiously damaging to the environment as to be all but incomprehensible, and points out in dramatic relief that globally we do not possess the will to free ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuel (be it oil or coal). As well, we are prepared to do whatever it takes, create any justification, and rely on any fabulist to spin elaborate denials in order to continue business as usual.

Hence we find ourselves in a cul-de-sac from which there is no exit. We are trapped and all we can do, if we are even remotely honest, is inform our children about what awaits them as the planet is incrementally despoiled in the name of perpetual growth and profit.

Regarding XL, first the backstory: according to an article in the New York Times, the Keystone XL pipeline, owned by TransCanada, is a system “designed to carry up to 830,000 barrels of petroleum per day from the tar sands of the boreal forests in western Canada to oil refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast. About half the system is already built, including a pipeline that runs east from Alberta and south through North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.” An additional 1,179-miles of pipe are still needed. It is the State Department that must give the final approval.

So what exactly is tar sand and how does it differ qualitatively from the oil that continues to be extracted from wells both domestic and international?

As explained by Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, writing in the New York Times, tar sand is a tarry mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen (low grade petroleum). It is mined and then separated at mills. When burned, it emits 17 percent more greenhouse gases than ordinary crude.

According to Global Forest Watch, vast stretches of Canada’s boreal forests, more than six times the size of New York City, have been cleared or degraded, reduced to moonscapes of treeless land. The actual deposit of bitumen is estimated to be the size of Florida and requires enormous energy to extract to include three barrels of water to get one barrel of oil, water taken from lakes and aquifers.

During the processing, huge tailing ponds (large enough to be seen from space) of industrial excrement are created and some are now leaking into groundwater as well as the Athabasca River.

“Air pollution,” writes Nikiforuk, “from bitumen mining blackens winter snows with particulates dozen of miles from the Athabasca mines. Come the spring melt, these pollutants rush into the Athabasca River. A growing ring of mercury contamination surrounds the project.”

Clearly the resistance to the Keystone XL is not just about some 1,179 miles of pipeline. It is about the carnage we are willing to engage in in the name of oil. The boreal forests will be lost forever (no one knows how to reclaim the fish-bearing streams and rivers and wetlands), and that habitat, as Nikiforuk points out, “took thousands of years to form.”

By allowing this mined and processed bitumen to travel across America, are we not complicit in the devastation involved in its acquisition and eventual use? A rejection of the pipeline, and the reasons why, while symbolic, would be part of our own narrative, despite the fact that this garbage crude will find its way by rail or tanker to consumers and eventually add to the thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere yearly: the global economy emitted 32.6 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2011 and it is rising.

As an aside, the argument that XL means jobs for American workers is disingenuous in the extreme. Only 35 permanent positions will result once the pipeline is completed.

Hence the pipeline construction debate is in reality a debate much larger than is presently acknowledged. Ultimately it may be about this: What is necessary to do, we cannot or will not do.

And at what point do environmentalists gaze at the horizon and agree that the tipping point has long since passed and the Keystone pipeline, the oil industry avatar, is but another example of that reality.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.