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The Keystone Pipeline – To Build or Not To Build

By C.W. Smoke © 2013

James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist, who left NASA recently to actively advocate for climate change remedies, one of the first scientists to alert us to climate change/global warming back in the 1980s, and Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org (named for the ideal maximum allowable 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), both claim (backed by scientific evidence) that the Keystone XL pipeline is the 'tipping point' for anthropogenic (man made) climate change, and if built, will drive us past the point where we can hope to control global warming. Since we currently have no economical method for removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to alleviate the negative effects of climate change, ideally, all the remaining fossil fuels should be left in the ground, but with our current addiction to fossil fuels, leaving all the oil in the ground is probably not feasible. In an ideal world the fossil fuel industry would not be actively blocking our transition to renewable energy simply to make more money, and we would have already made the transition to renewable energy, but this is not an ideal world. So, we must use our (global) oil reserves wisely and make the price of that oil reflect the actual cost of refining and burning it. The true price would reflect the additional environmental and health costs. The true price would also reflect that tar sands oil is three to four times dirtier than regular crude and will release three to four times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when refined and burned. Just as the true price of 'fracking' (hydraulic fracturing) the oil shales (using the current, inadequately regulated, unsafe methods that contaminate our ground water) will include the costs of the additional pollution and the destruction of our limited fresh water supplies. If the current unsafe methods for extracting and transporting fossil fuels continue to be used without modification, then, in the not too distant future, clean drinking water could be worth more than gold. Do we want to take the risk that millions more folks will die from thirst just so big oil can make a profit?


The argument that the Keystone XL pipeline will create 'thousands' of permanent jobs has been thoroughly debunked. While the pipeline will create some temporary jobs (4500 to 6000) as it is being built, most of those jobs will go to oil company employees who are already currently employed, and the total number of permanent jobs has been shown to be a grand total of fifty. Only fifty permanent jobs! Other arguments promoted by the pro-pipeline folks are that the Keystone XL pipeline will make America 'energy independent', and that its construction will decrease the price of gasoline. Both these statements are also false. First, the only U.S. citizens, who will benefit from this increase in dirty tar sands oil being pumped across our heartland are folks, like Charles and David Koch, who own the oil refineries at the end of the pipeline in Texas. The refined oil will be shipped abroad. We are, in fact, using more tar sands oil now than we will after the pipeline is built because it is incredibly inefficient (read expensive) to ship the unrefined tar sands oil by rail, truck, or tanker over extended distances. The tar sands oil that is currently being transported by these methods is only shipped over short hauls, and we have the use of it in some of our Canadian border states like North Dakota which has a small refinery to convert the dirty tar sands oil to gasoline. Once the pipeline is built these 'sources' of tar sands crude will literally dry up as all of the tar sands oil will be pumped to Gulf refineries. Did you know that tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet, and that it is extremely difficult to clean up after pipeline spills because tar sands oil sinks in water? Second, the world price of oil is set by the oil cartels. The big oil companies sell gasoline at market rates, and they will not decrease their profits by selling it at a lower rate. Big oil has even routinely kept loaded tankers offshore, waiting for the price of oil to rise before they dock. Do you think that they will act any differently once the pipeline is built? American taxpayers are absorbing all the risks (tar sands pipeline spills, water and soil contamination, and increased global warming) while reaping none of the rewards. Big oil gets the money, and we, the people get the shaft.

As the (tar sands pipeline spills) Buzzfeed/Truthout article reports:


Enbridge is responsible for 804 pipeline spills totaling 6.8 million gallons of oil since 1999, according to the Polaris Institute. That includes the Kalamazoo spill, where 800,000 barrels of oil gushed for l7 days and where cleanup costs were $800 million — so far; cleanup isn’t done. The ecological impact, health impact, and insurance economic impact, in terms of lost property values and rising insurance costs, have never been calculated.

Apparently OFA (Organizing for Action), the Obama grassroots political action group, while advocating for climate change remedies and 'getting after' climate change deniers, is distancing itself from the presidential decision on whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline. CREDO, another progressive political action group, is opposed to the pipeline being built because (they rightly believe as do the reputable climate scientists) Keystone is the lynchpin, the tipping point that will drive us into irreparable climate change disaster if it is built. Make no mistake. If the pipeline is not built, the big oil companies will lose billions of (US) dollars, and if it is built, then we all will lose, our health, our clean air and water, and our (habitable) planet. If the current pace of global warming is not slowed significantly or halted entirely, eighty percent of the species currently living on our planet will become extinct due to the rapidity (in geological time) of the temperature changes and the resulting extreme climates that will be generated by these rapid changes.

The effects of global warming will not be a regular, steady drip like the melting of an ice cube in your kitchen sink. More heat in the atmosphere and oceans will cause catastrophic surges in climate and ocean rise as huge events that cannot be predicted by the current climate models happen sporadically (i.e. great glacial or polar ice shelf chunks fall into the ocean or the jet streams go wild), dumping huge amounts of wind, precipitation, and sea level rise in unexpected places. A good analogy concerning tipping points is the process of a dam bursting. Water pressure builds up behind the dam as the water rises. When the water undercuts the dam and/or the structural capacity of the dam to hold back the weight/pressure of the water is exceeded, a tipping point is reached, the water weight causes a structural collapse, the dam bursts, and water comes rushing through. Another good analogy is the process of water boiling. Not much happens at first except an increasing temperature until the water nears its boiling point. Then, suddenly, gas bubbles erupt and the water becomes turbulent as the additional heat wreaks havoc with the water, a tipping point is reached, and the water begins to boil. We are very close to that tipping point with global warming.

(Note: During the comments, when I posted this on Daily Kos, there was concern about too much hype over a 'tipping point'. To date there are nine positive feedback loops that accelerate climate change. One example is the melting of the Arctic ice. Less ice means less surface 'white' which translates to less heat reflection and more heat absorption. To reach a positive reading a feedback loop must be self sustaining, hence the positive reading. The Arctic ice melt is now self sustaining. For each of these feedback loops to become positive a tipping point must be reached. We have already passed and exceeded nine tipping points. At some point if enough tipping points are exceeded, global warming will be self sustaining. It will be unstoppable. Why bring the tar sands oil to market and burn it? Why even chance it when, as reputable scientists have already concluded, it will be yet another 'tipping point'? It does not make sense to gamble the future of our planet simply for the fossil fuel industry to make more money. We can't drink money. We can't eat money, and we sure as hell can't breathe money.)

The Obama administration's rationale for deciding whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline is currently based upon the State Department's environmental impact study, and the reason that the State Department is even involved at all in the decision is that the pipeline will cross our northern border with Canada, involving national security. Two aspects of the State Department study, however, are flawed. The first, is that the study is authored by the oil consulting firm, Environmental Resources Management (ERM - whose ties to TransCanada are conveniently redacted by the State Department in the study). ERM is a TransCanada contractor known to be sympathetic to Enbridge, the pipeline builder and to the conservative Canadian government, who are also pushing to get the pipeline built, commissioning a $16 million, taxpayer funded, public relations campaign that studiously ignores the facts and the environmental impacts of constructing and operating the pipeline. Canadian officials have also traveled to the United States, visiting the House and the Senate and even the President to promote the Keystone XL pipeline. The result of those visits (and of the fossil fuel industry flexing its political muscle) has been a nonbinding amendment to the budget voted on by the U.S. Senate 62-37 in favor of building the pipeline, and the U.S. House also voted 241-175 in favor of HR-3 a similar bill. However, the decision whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline rests entirely with President Barack Obama. Over one million public comments were filed with the State Department during its public comment period (and, incidentally, hidden from the public's view in an unprecedented manner by the oil company consultant, ERM, who is handling the review for the State Department) with the majority, including a response from the EPA, disputing the alleged 'facts' in the State Department environmental study. The main thrust of the State Department environmental impact study is to conclude that if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built, the tar sands oil will still find its way to market. The study fails to account for the Canadian environmental groups and native American tribes who strenuously oppose the pipeline being built upon their tribal lands in Canada, thereby blocking any alternate pipeline routes built to Canada's west coast for transporting the tar sands oil ultimately for sale to China. The study also erroneously concludes that sans the Keystone XL pipeline, the oil companies will ship the tar sands oil by rail, truck, or tanker to reach its ultimate destination, but if that fact were true, then they would already be shipping the tar sands oil on a much larger scale to the Texas refineries since the pipeline has been delayed for more than three years.

(Note: Since this was published, British Columbia with its Native Indian tribes and environmentalists has blocked all tar sands pipelines being built upon its land, effectively killing any Canadian west coast expansion of the tar sands pipelines.)

So, now we get to the point where the 'rubber meets the road'. The decision whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline to carry the dirty tars sands oil across the American heartland rests solely with President Obama, who has repeatedly stated in public during his second inaugral speech that he believes in global warming and the science behind it, and that he will follow the science to halt and/or reverse global warming.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.” ~ President Barack Obama

If, as he states, his goal is to use science (not money or politics) to influence his decision regarding Keystone and global warming, then President Obama's choice is clear: He must reject the Keystone XL pipeline because, according to science, the Keystone XL pipeline should not be built, and the dirty tar sands oil should remain unburned, in the ground.

However, if our President decides to build the Keystone XL pipeline, siding with big oil, their money and political influence, while rejecting science, and if he has only commissioned the State Department 'study' to reach a foregone conclusion, then Barack Obama can no longer claim that he is anything more than a 'corporate' politician, who works with/for the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of everyone else. The Keystone XL pipeline is the cornerstone issue regarding climate change to a large part of his political base, and he will lose popular support and GOTV (Get Out The Vote) political activism, weakening OFA, just before the 2014 midterms (similar to 2010 with its lackluster base support that gave the GOP the House and a number of Republican governorships), not a pleasant scenario if the Democrats plan to take back the House and hold onto the Senate...

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