Looking Over the Tar Sands Precipice

by Glenn Scherer

Enough! Texas is burning. Our best croplands in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri have been underwater since June. Hurricane Irene has devastated Northeast communities. People along the Mississippi, in Tuscaloosa, and Joplin are still recovering from Biblical floods and killer tornadoes.

All this – ten weather disasters in eight months each costing more than $1 billion – is on a scale never seen in U.S. history.


In another time – when government, political parties, and the media weren’t corporate subsidiaries – such a cataclysm would have been a call to arms and national sacrifice. Instead the climate change deniers at Exxon and FOX, in Congress and at the White House are winning the day.

Despite soaring rhetoric to the contrary, President Obama is becoming as big of a fossil fuel booster as George W. Bush. Obama has launched a run on Western coalfields on federal lands that could double U.S. carbon emissions, and is opening fragile Arctic waters to oil exploration. He also has delayed plans to cut power plant carbon emissions.

Now the President is considering approval of the 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline, running from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s an oil project that could hurt the U.S. economy and environment, and threaten your children’s future. Here’s how:

  1. Oil companies lie: Big oil says that Keystone XL uses long-proven, safe technology. This is a lie. It utilizes largely untested technology. Tar sands oil is a heavier, thicker, dirtier crude, piped under higher pressure than in conventional pipelines. High pressure means that oil doesn’t leak slowly, but spouts in geysers.
  2. The pipeline could leak: Oil companies claim a long history of pipeline safety. Another lie. There are 100 significant conventional U.S. pipeline spills annually, reports the New York Times. New high-pressure tar sands pipelines have already breached in Michigan (840,000 gallons), near Chicago (250,000 gallons), and in Alberta (1.3 million gallons). Does that sound safe to you?
  3. Keystone XL could be the ultimate terrorist target: Our soldiers fought for a decade to make our nation safe from terrorism. So why construct a pipeline that, if attacked, would harm our nation’s energy supply and our food and water supply. The Keystone pipeline would run atop the Midwest’s Ogallala Aquifer, crucial for Heartland crop irrigation. Blow it up, or let it leak, and you disrupt 830,000 barrels of oil per day, poison groundwater, and wreck our best farms.
  4. Climate change is real and the Keystone pipeline is a dangerous game changer: The Canadian tar sands are the largest untapped oil repository on earth, and could be a major climate change accelerator. Top NASA climate scientist James Hansen says this: “The tar sands of Canada constitute a deadly threat to our planet.”
  5. You might never get to use any of that oil: This harks back to reason number one: oil companies lie. Big oil says tar sands oil is for U.S. consumption, but when pressed whether it might sell the oil to the highest bidder – say, China – oilmen declaim the idea as foolishness… but they never say they won’t.
  6. Your kids deserve a safe future: Okay folks, it’s time to bite the bullet. Nature, unlike Big Oil, does not lie. The weather is changing for the worse. There is solid scientific proof that humans are causing that change, and very real concern that continued denial will mean many more billion dollar-plus storms and droughts, which could wreck our economy.

It’s time for a national carbon tax that puts responsibility where it belongs: on America’s fossil fuel producers and energy hogs. It’s time to end fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks, and pass them on to green energy companies. It’s time to end two wars, bring our troops home, and put them to work repairing and protecting flood and drought susceptible communities. That means more, not less money, for FEMA and other disaster recovery programs. It means preparedness, not sailing blind into the climate change storm.

Lastly, we need leaders willing to confront the climate change emergency. Rick Perry is not that leader. Barack Obama could be if he boldly rejects the Keystone XL pipeline.

Glenn Scherer is Blue Ridge Press Senior Editor, and lives in Montpelier, Vermont. © 2011 www.blueridgepress.com

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