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September 21, 2010

Toxic Ballet

The tar sands pits in Alberta, Canada that Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) visited last week are so bleak that one UN official, after seeing them for the first time, compared them to Mordor, the hellish wasteland from Lord of the Rings.

But Senator Graham, after meeting with oil industry representatives and tar sands proponents, hailed the toxic mines, the source of the world's dirtiest fuel, as "an industrial ballet," adding that the project "really blends with the natural habitat."

Tar-sands1

Huh?

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, Graham and his delegation never met with opponents of the project -- like the people living near the tar sands pits, who report higher-than-average cancer rates linked to water contamination, or biologists, or the wildlife experts, who counted hundreds of ducks that died after landing on the project's toxic lakes.

But you would think plans to expand pipelines carrying this toxic crude into the United States would come under a little more scrutiny from U.S. leaders –- especially the ones living in states where pipelines threaten drinking water supplies.

That's why it was so surprising to hear Montana Senator Max Baucus pushing for hasty approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which would carry this toxic oil right into his state, traversing major sources of fresh water like the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, posing a constant threat of ruptures, spills, and contamination. In addition to Montana, the pipeline would run through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, crossing dangerously close to drinking water supplies and agricultural aquifers.

We know the oil industry's influence on our representatives in Washington is out of hand. And when companies like BP spend nearly as much money on public relations after a major environmental disaster like the oil spill in the Gulf as they do on clean up, it's clear that we've got our work cut out for us.

But here's what we've got on our side: the truth.

We know the Keystone XL pipeline would put American health at risk. In addition to threatening drinking water, processing tar sands oil releases pollutants directly linked to asthma, emphysema and birth defects. Refining tar sands crude from the pipeline would create far more air pollution in American communities that are already burdened with cancer and poor air quality as a result of the oil industry.

We also know the pipeline would cross the most important source of agricultural water in the United States, the Ogallala aquifer.

And we know pipeline disasters happen.

The Enbridge oil disaster in Michigan in July poured one million gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River, forced evacuations of families living near the site, and billed the EPA $17 million to clean up. Just weeks ago, another pipeline ruptured outside of Chicago, sending oil bubbling to the surface and raising questions about vulnerability of the project along the rest of its 465-mile route.

The BP disaster taught us how cozy ties between the oil industry and federal agencies can lead to lax oversight and we know this is a concern with the agency overseeing pipeline safety.

But even if we succeeded in forcing the oil industry to beef up safety on its pipelines, projects like Keystone XL wouldn't make sense. The oil this pipeline would carry is the dirtiest in the world, and the most difficult and expensive to produce. It requires chopping down ancient forest, using massive amounts of energy and water to squeeze out a tiny bit of crude, and leaving behind giant toxic lakes.

But that's not the end of the story. Once this dirty oil reaches refineries in places like Houston and Detroit, it spews chemicals into the air, putting Americans at risk for asthma and cancer.

The most mind-boggling part is that the pipeline will do nothing for American citizens. The oil it promises to provide could be recovered just by increasing our cars' fuel efficiency by about two and a half miles per gallon -- something we already know how to do.

It's a pretty simple solution. But Canada's oil industry won't profit from increased fuel efficiency or clean energy. So they are spending millions of dollars working to convince American leaders like Senator Graham and Senator Baucus to support their pipeline. 

Fortunately, Senators Graham and Baucus are among only a handful who have caved to oil industry pressure. More than 50 members of Congress have called on the State Department to stop the pipeline proposal. EPA director Lisa Jackson has raised questions about the safety of the project. And a poll last week in Nebraska showed that citizens overwhelmingly oppose construction of the pipeline.

Every day, more Americans add their voices to the tens of thousands who have already asked the State Department to kill the project. At a time when we could be moving forward into a clean energy economy, it's just plain crazy to pipe the world's most expensive, dirty, and wasteful oil into America -- all so the oil industry can break profit records.  

Photo credit: David Dodge, Pembina Institute.


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