Anyone who thinks the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that is awaiting President Barack Obama's approval will do anything to help cure our energy woes ought to think again.
The tar sands oil that TransCanada wants to send from Alberta through five U.S. states to Gulf Coast refineries will likely be exported. If so, the pipeline will not increase our domestic oil supply, as many are led to believe. The only thing that will increase is money in the pockets of TransCanada and its investors.
As a scientist, I have deeper concerns. The TransCanada project is ruining an area of pristine Boreal forest and wetlands about the size of Florida under which the Alberta tar sands lie.
Extracting oil from tar sands is a dirty, costly and environmentally destructive enterprise. It requires either strip mining to get at the unrefined oil product, called bitumen, or melting it and pumping it up after the ground has been heated with steam for several months. Imagine the huge amounts of water from rivers and underground aquifers and the great quantities of natural gas for heating it that are wasted in the process.
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Kentuckians, especially we who live in coalfield areas, are familiar with tailings ponds, which is a euphemism for mine dumps. People living near them often complain of tainted water, chronic illness and an absence of fish and healthy vegetation. A part of Canada's Boreal forest region is suffering from the same types of problems, with more than 65 square miles of tailings ponds from tar sands mining.
A study by Canadian scientists published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 showed that the oil sands industry dumps at least 13 toxic elements into the Athabasca River and its watersheds. Among them are lead, cadmium and mercury at levels above allowable levels in Canada and the United States.
And now we want to transport this thick, expensive, dirty, bituminous substance, which has been produced at tragic cost to the Canadian environment, through our agricultural heartland and waterways, into Texas for us to refine? The potential for accidents and seepage from a pipeline that long is not small. All we have to do is listen to the news to understand the lurking environmental dangers.
America's High Plains' Ogallala Aquifer lies in the pipeline's path. It is the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation's groundwater used for irrigation. Just imagine what havoc could result there if the pipeline leaked.
Moreover, we hardly ever hear about the health hazards of refining tar sands oil. Pollutants from this process are associated with cancer, and heart and lung disease. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, tar sands oil contains more air-polluting elements, including the aforementioned heavy metals, than conventional crudes, and many refineries taking on this job are in areas that are still not up to air quality standards. This is very troubling.
So, there are two questions to ask ourselves.
First, what on earth does the average American gain from the Keystone XL pipeline, since the oil is apparently not for domestic use and has the potential of creating environmental and/or personal health problems that we don't need?
The second is an ethical one. By allowing the pipeline to pass through our country, for whatever purpose, are we encouraging, and thus complicit in, the irreversible damage of one of the last, unspoiled regions of our continent?
April 22 (Earth Day) is the deadline for public comment on this issue; little time is left to make our voices heard. If we care about the future of our environment and see the foolhardiness of the Keystone XL project, we should contact the State Department (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the president (email@example.com) and let it be known. If enough of us do, maybe we can make a difference.
John G. Shiber teaches human ecology and introductory environmental science at Big Sandy Community & Technical College in Prestonsburg.