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Pipeline Foils Hopes for a Sustainable Future

ByJean-Michel Cousteau

Photo: Nancy Marr

Nearly 40,000 people gathered in front of the White House in Washington D.C. on Sunday, February 17, 2013 for the largest protest in U.S. history to address global climate change and the hopes for a sustainable future.  The fight is against the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed project by TransCanada Corporation that would bring synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta to oil refineries in the U.S. Gulf coast.  The pipeline would cross over 1,000 miles of heartland in the United States, spanning six states and bringing with it heavy tar sands oil, an unconventional type of petroleum deposit that is dirtier, heavier and more difficult to refine than conventional oil.

Bitumen is a black, sticky, and highly viscous form of petroleum found in remote oil deposits such as those in the Athabasca oil sands in Canada.  The oil sands, also known as tar sands or bituminous sands, contain bitumen that is entwined with sand, clay, and water, making extraction for the petroleum highly inefficient and costly. Due to its heavy and highly viscous nature, bitumen from the Alberta tar sands must be heated and diluted by lighter hydrocarbons in order to transport it through the proposed pipeline. The nature of this heavy oil not only makes it far more difficult to transport, but also far more likely to leak and devastate the surrounding environment.  The threat of an oil spill anywhere along the proposed pipeline is one of immense concern, since methods to clean up conventional oil would be ineffective on heavy tar sands oil.  As conventional oil is being depleted around the world, big oil corporations are turning to dirty oil sands in order to keep their businesses booming.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline crosses miles upon miles of pristine environment, threatening wildlife and surrounding habitats across the country.  The pipeline was originally proposed to cross over the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world.  Providing drinking water to over 2 million people and supporting over $20 billion dollars in agriculture, an oil spill would devastate the region and cause unsurpassed damage to one of our planet’s few and rare freshwater resources.  On a scale so enormously large, how could big oil and energy corporations possibly think that their proposed pipeline is worth the risk? Our sustenance, our homelands, our lives and the future of our children are what we put at stake if this plan is to continue forward.

Devastating Spills

Sadly, in my lifetime I have witnessed some of the most devastating oil spills in human history.  I have been on site at the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound Alaska, at the Prestige oil spill off the coastline of Galicia, Spain and the most horrendous oil spill we have ever seen, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  I have stood alongside workers and volunteers fighting to save not only the precious landscapes and coastlines that they cherish and love, but also the beautiful creatures that have been plagued by the oil spewed from our negligence. Yet we cannot let these unmistakable tragedies become forgotten memories; we must learn from them and do everything in our power to stop such horrendous acts of negligence from happening again. This means stopping dirty energy and fuel from controlling our future.

Worse than the threat to the environment by spill or leak is the potential that the Keystone XL pipeline has to damage the future sustainability of our planet in terms of carbon emissions. Studies from various universities and environmental groups suggest that carbon emissions from oil-sand crude would be 12{c383baab7bef8067e8c9786a45d8006c492489841a98fe37723e304bb1ddd030} to 22{c383baab7bef8067e8c9786a45d8006c492489841a98fe37723e304bb1ddd030} higher than conventional oil.  Curbing carbon emissions remains one of the foremost issues in combating global climate change.  Scientists believe that surface sea temperature rise, ocean level rise, ocean acidification and global climate shifts are due to the increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Although natural CO2 levels are known to fluctuate with natural Earth cycles, there is no denying that human activities have released more CO2 into the atmosphere by use of fossil fuels than the Earth can readily balance.  If we are to move toward a sustainable future – if we are to give our children a chance for a future – we cannot continue to depend on dirty energy and dangerous fossil fuels.

Thousands of environmentalists, activists, and concerned citizens came together that Sunday in February to protest the proposed XL pipeline because it serves as a symbol for a larger fight – the fight for our future.  As President Obama stood in front of the country during his Inaugural address, he made a pledge to the people of the United States, “We will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The rally in Washington D.C. brought protestors to stand outside President Obama’s door and urge him to keep his promise and deny the construction of a project that would take us all further away from the hopes a sustainable future.

Dirty Investment

At one point, we demanded oil from big energy companies to fuel our cars, our homes, and the societies we built around us.  Now, we demand their help. We need energy derived from renewable and sustainable resources and it will take the help of big corporations to invest in a brighter future. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), big oil companies have spent nearly $190 billion dollars in the past five years investing in dirty tar sands oil, exceeding their global investment in renewable sources by fifty times. Although their advertisements flash slogans for clean energy, big energy companies spend less than half a penny on renewable resources for every dollar they spend searching for more oil.  Less than half a penny marks the value these companies place on the future of their grandchildren and keeps us hooked on dirty oil. To make big changes, we need help from the big players, and this means big oil. If these corporations take just a fraction (and more than just half a penny) of the multi-billion dollars they make each year and put that money into developing new technologies for sustainable energy, we can give our children, our grandchildren and future generations a true fighting chance.

At our own personal level, we too can answer the call of climate change. It will take the courage to embrace a completely different perspective of how we work in, exploit and manage the natural world, far beyond simply the search for new technology. We need a new philosophy about the appropriate use of technology and our relationship with nature. We must remember that it is the natural world that keeps our planet habitable, and so far, most of our activities undermine the health and vitality of nature. There is only one Earth that connects us to one another, one planet that ebbs and flows, breathes and respires, gives us life and sustains our future.

Please join us at Ocean Futures Society in our effort to spread the word about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and demand big oil companies to invest in the future of sustainable energy. It is within our power to make a change.  The choices we make now and the fight we are willing to undertake will determine the prospect of our future.



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