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Independently, Keystone causes runaway warming—that causes extinction

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Independently, Keystone causes runaway warming—that causes extinction


(EDWIN MATTHEWS is a regular contributor to the Litchfield County Times, March 27, 2014, “OPINION: Keystone Armageddon Express,” Litchfield County Times,

What should you do if you are a passenger in a car at high speed about to run off the road? Should you just sit quietly? How about getting out to walk? When it comes to government decisions that may threaten our future, we cannot get off the Earth. We must remain as passengers, but in a democracy we do not have to keep silent! What is at stake in President Obama’s decision to approve or disapprove the Keystone XL pipeline is no less significant. Whether we like it or not, we all will be affected by his decision; even generations far into the future will be affected. But for a decision this important, there has been little serious public debate. The Keystone XL pipeline is proposed by a Canadian energy company, Trans Canada, to permit it to extract crude oil from tar sand deposits in Alberta and deliver the crude 2,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico for export. At issue for President Obama, who must approve the project, and for us, who must live with his decision, is whether enabling this pipeline to be built is in the interest of the United States, and we might even say the Earth. Our interests go far beyond those of Trans Canada. Keystone is not just a pipe in the ground. The public debate around the proposed pipeline has been profoundly disappointing. The implications of this pipeline for our country have been largely ignored and are huge. The Keystone pipeline is not only necessary to deliver crude oil from Alberta to the Gulf. Even Trans Canada has acknowledged that it is doubtful that the tar sand deposits can be commercially developed without this pipeline. Some have argued that Trans Canada could build a pipeline over the high Rockies through British Columbia to the Pacific or transport the crude oil by rail, but neither alternative has been shown to be financially feasible. The province of British Columbia has refused to allow a pipeline through its province. Transportation by rail, which would require a huge investment in special heated trains to carry the hot heavy crude oil, may be prohibitive. Recognized experts and Trans Canada itself have predicted that without Keystone, the oil in the tar sands may stay in the ground for the future. But whether the pipeline is essential or not, the overriding question is whether it is interest of the United States by approving this pipeline to enable this massive development of fossil fuels. In making up our minds and in our president’s consideration of whether this project is in our country’s interest, here are some of the issues that we must think about and that have largely been ignored: 1. Source of Energy for the United States: The United States is presently headed, due to the development of energy sources other than oil, including solar, wind and natural gas and increased energy efficiency, to become self-sufficient in energy in coming years. But the Keystone pipeline has nothing to do with U.S. energy supply. All of the crude transported in this pipeline would be for export to other countries and would not be consumed in the United States. 2. Jobs: Pipeline promoters claim that the pipeline would “create jobs”. Many folks badly need jobs, but this jobs argument is specious because the pipeline construction would provide only a hand full of temporary construction jobs and very few local and permanent jobs. These are not the jobs around which we can build the future. Moreover, every economic activity “creates jobs,” even repairing man-made disasters. That is no argument for disasters. When considering the creation of employment, the question remains whether the activity is in the public interest and is worthy of our government support. Unless we have sold out to corporate interests and given up entirely examining what is behind job creation, creating a few temporary jobs cannot be the guide to public policy. 3. Climate Change: Based upon an overwhelming scientific consensus, the world-wide consumption of fossil fuels is fueling a change in our climate that is likely to be disastrous for the future of human civilization and much else. Our responsibility to reduce oil consumption is clear. Should we fail to reduce soon our emissions of CO2 and other so-called “greenhouse” gasses, it may be too late to address climate change responsibly. A warming climate produces further warming and at some point, perhaps before we know it, climate change is likely to accelerate and be beyond human power to slow down. The policy implications of recognized climate science are therefore that we must reduce human emissions from fossil fuels urgently and substantially. James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who was one of the first to alert us to the impending threat of climate change, has written that if the Keystone pipeline is built, we will have no chance of facing responsibly the challenge of climate change. As he has testified, if Keystone is authorized, “the game will be over.” Why is so much at stake here? After all, is Keystone not just a pipe in the ground? Despite all the green rhetoric floating around, because of human inertia and to selfish denial, we have barely begun to address the necessary reduction of fossil fuel consumption. In this context, Hansen’s assessment of what is at stake with Keystone is not only based on the colossal carbon pollution that exploitation of the Alberta tar sands would cause. It is because facilitating this questionable project would mean that as a country we have shown that we are unable to face our responsibility to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Hansen does not underestimate the difficulty of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels given the huge interests that are vested in this consumption, including, of course, the habits of all of us who depend hourly on fossil fuels to keep us warm or cool, to move us from one place to another, to keep us fed, informed and amused. But we cannot allow the magnitude of this challenge nor our own selfish interests to determine our long range policies, unless of course we are willing to deny the laws of physics or be guided by despair. Facilitating the massive expansion of oil production from the Alberta tar sands would say that we have failed to face our responsibility to deal with the threat of climate change. Keystone becomes a line in the sand. If allow ourselves to cross this line, or help others to do so, we shall have lost our chance as a country for serious fossil fuel reduction and with it, possibly, our integrity. 4. Tar Sands Project: The oil in the Keystone pipeline would not simply be pumped from the ground, but would be extracted, with enormous inputs of heat, steam, chemicals and water, from deposits of sand left behind when the tropical forests left North America. Digging out the sand and extracting the oil from the sand is itself a dirty process, producing massive waste, many times more polluting than conventional underground pumping of oil. It would impair for the rest of human history large areas of the boreal forest of Canada. This project would also destroy critical habitat for many species, including the endangered whooping crane and woodland caribou that the United States and Canada are bound by treaty to protect. Because of the irreparable damage it will do to the land they have held dear for thousands of years, the native peoples of America have raised their voices in opposition to this project. Canada does not have the environmental controls comparable to those of the United States; Alberta’s environmental regulations are weak and provide no meaningful protection for this project. The energy required to extract and deliver oil from the sand is many times that required to extract oil from other sources. Indeed, the exploitation of oil from tar sands, itself energy intensive, consumes a substantial part of the energy that could ultimately be obtained from the oil delivered to the Gulf. This is standing energy efficiency on its head. It would be as if we have learned nothing in the past fifty years about how to produce and use oil wisely. It is the long term policy implications of such a reversal of our fledgling progress in using oil efficiently that makes the implications of this pipeline so serious. How can our country be seriously committed to energy efficiency if we are complicit in such a wasteful project? 5. Risks to our land: To build the Keystone pipeline, Trans Canada would condemn a large swath of precious land through the middle of America. This pipeline would invade productive agricultural land, cross thousands of rivers, lakes and marshes and threaten irreplaceable aquifers on which millions depend. Pipelines are inevitably risky. Spills always occur. Over the past twenty years there have been more than 5,600 spills from pipelines, resulting in the destruction of land and critical water supplies and the loss of hundreds of lives. If the pipeline is not authorized, this risk is entirely avoided. How do we tell ranchers and farmers who have cared for their land, struggling for generations to support themselves and feed our country, that solely for its profit a foreign company can take their fields and pastures to install a risky pipeline? Such a discounting of rights in the land and water should only take place where it is necessary for a compelling national interest, such as a war or natural disaster. In this case, the sole interest served would be to make profitable the investment in the tar sands of a foreign oil company. Trans Canada profits should not come before our farmers and ranchers and the preservation of our natural resources. The Keystone pipeline debate has so far been set by those with a business interest in promoting the project and by their hired spinners. Even the review of our State Department has been biased and compromised by consultants who were previously employed by promoters of the pipeline. The public debate, meagre as it is, has largely ignored the questions outlined above. As it determines whether this project is in national interest, our government owes us to face these questions honestly and objectively. We now must rely on our President to have the foresight and political courage to reject this project. Will it be too much to ask that we not be willingly complicit in a wasteful and destructive project? How can we as a country take the lead to support practices that are required further to nourish and sustain human civilization, if we cannot even decline to support a wasteful destructive project such as Keystone. If Keystone is allowed, we shall have proven once again that there no limit to the power of corporate profit?

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