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COMING DOWN THE PIPELINE

Governments and corporations misrepresent the facts on oil sands

by Adam Kostrich

Protestors oppose pipeline in front of White House. photo by Ben Powless
Protestors oppose pipeline in front of White House. photo by Ben Powless
Opposition to tarsands in US ahead of action in Ottawa. photo by Ben Powless
Opposition to tarsands in US ahead of action in Ottawa. photo by Ben Powless

Proposed extensions to the existing network of trans-continental oil pipelines has raised public concern in Canada and the US over the potential environmental impact. But for the most part governments and mainstream media outlets have ignored public opposition to the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would facilitate a direct link between Alberta’s oil sands and refineries in the Texas Gulf coast. 

Major pipelines already exist between Canada and the US; the function of the Keystone XL would be to pave the way for extensive investment in the future development of Alberta’s oil sands. The Harper government supports the construction of the Keystone XL and other pipelines on the grounds that oil sands development will bolster American energy security and provide a boost to the North American economy in the form of job creation.

Remind Me Again: What Are the Oil Sands?

The oil sands (also commonly referred to as the tar sands) consist of sand, water, clay, and bitumen, which is a highly viscous variety of petroleum. The thick and heavy nature of bitumen does not allow it to flow as readily as crude oil, so it must be positioned via technological processes before being extracted. Bitumen is thus financially and environmentally more expensive to extract and refine than crude oil.

There are two approaches to determining the relative ecological cost of extracting bitumen. The oil industry prefers to quote the “well-to-wheels” approach, which takes into account the greenhouse gas emissions generated in the production and consumption of a barrel of oil. This approach shows that products from the oil sands produce approximately 10 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional sources of oil.

However, the majority of emissions are generated during the process of extracting, refining, and transporting the oil. Environmentalists therefore prefer a “well-to-tank” comparison, which does not take consumption into account. Such a measurement indicates that oil sands products generate 130 percent more greenhouse gases than crude oil produced in the US.

No Environmental Impact?    

On Aug. 26 the US State Department released a statement indicating that if built the Keystone XL would have “no significant impact” on the environment. The statement is carefully constructed to emphasize the relatively clean nature of transporting oil via pipeline versus other methods of transportation. The statement makes no reference to the environmental consequences of extensive investment in the Alberta oil sands down the road.

In reality, there are a number of pressing environmental concerns. Increased oil sands production has been referred to as a tipping point for climate change by a number of renowned climatologists, given that the Alberta oil sands represent the second-largest carbon deposit on the planet, and only about three percent of the oil sands have been developed thus far. The Keystone XL’s proposed path would cross over the Ogallala Aquifer, which over two million Americans depend on for drinking water and approximately one-third of American farmers rely on for irrigation purposes.

In addition, expanded oil sands production would result in further destruction of the Canadian boreal forest and would pollute a number of culturally and ecologically sensitive areas, even if the pipeline does not leak. Residents of communities surrounding and downstream of the oil sands, for example, have experienced a proliferation of cancer and respiratory illness as the oil sands have been developed over the past decade.

Jobs, Energy Independence, and the Asia Threat

The Canadian government and TransCanada have marketed increased oil sands production as a way to create 1.2 million jobs in Canada and strengthen the trade partnership between Canada and the US. The American government and media alike have championed pipeline construction projects as a means by which the US can import oil from an established ally and reduce its dependence on energy imports from “hostile,” oil-rich nations such as Venezuela and Iran.

The Wall Street Journal published a piece in July 2011 entitled “Jobs in the Pipeline,” which prized job creation and American energy security above all other concerns. The article quoted the well-to-wheels approach in calculating relative greenhouse gas emissions and stated that the Keystone XL alone would create up to 600,000 American jobs, without setting out a timeline for job creation. In dismissing opposition on environmental grounds the article raised the question, “Why do jobs always lose?”

These oft-cited job creation figures – 1.2 million in Canada and 600,000 in the US – are grossly inflated. They are based upon projections derived from uninhibited oil sands development and unrestricted pipeline construction until 2035. The Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates that the effects of the Keystone XL alone would create approximately 200,000 jobs in Canada and 80,000 jobs in the US over the next 25 years. Therefore, the impact of the Keystone XL on the North American economy would not be as immediate or significant as advertised.

Both TransCanada and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have announced intentions to build a Northern Gateway pipeline from the oil sands to the Pacific coast, with the aim of selling energy to Asian markets. The implication is that increased investment in the oil sands will take place whether the Keystone XL is built or not, and that American interests stand to either benefit from the Keystone XL or suffer if the project is not endorsed by President Obama.

Standing Up to the Oil-Government Alliance

Opponents of the Keystone XL, the Northern Gateway pipeline, and similar projects ask some important questions. Must energy security and job creation come from fossil fuel industries instead of alternative energy industries? Should we be placing more money (and thus more political power) in the hands of the oil industry? Can we afford to allow our elected officials to misrepresent the interests and ignore the voices of their constituents?

The answer of North American Indigenous peoples, activists, climatologists, and youth seems to be a resounding “no.” Opposition to the Keystone XL in particular resulted in a peaceful protest in front of the White House from Aug. 20 to Sept. 3. Protesters called for President Obama to live up to his 2008 election promise of reducing America’s dependence on fossil fuels and foreign energy imports. Over two weeks of non-violent protest, 1,252 individuals were arrested. To coincide with the demonstrations in Washington, a protest also took place last month against the Northern Gateway pipeline in Burnaby, BC. The Northern Gateway is part of the broader pipeline initiative, but is slated to be built by Enbridge instead of TransCanada. The Yinka Dene Alliance, representing five First Nations whose territory covers a quarter of the Northern Gateway’s proposed route, publicly rejected a 10 percent equity stake from Enbridge in December of last year, saying that Enbridge’s money and promises “are no good to us.”

A sit-in against the pipelines is scheduled to take place at the Centre Block of Parliament in Ottawa on Monday, Sept. 26. Organizers have encouraged participants to attend training sessions the day before, and to volunteer transportation and accommodation for participants. It is hoped that sustained efforts at peaceful civil disobedience by everyday individuals and environmental activists will prove effective at forcing the Canadian government to withdraw its support of the oil sands industry.

All individuals engaging in civil disobedience at the Parliament buildings on Sept. 26 run the risk of arrest, but it is unlikely that individuals will be detained for an extended period of time unless they have a previous outstanding criminal conviction. More information about the legal aspect of the protest can be found at ottawaaction.ca/content/legal.
Participation in the protest aside, the solidarity, skills, and time of volunteers are needed as well. Skilled cooks are required to prepare food on Sept. 25, the day of participant training. Those interested should e-mail frederic.bleau@gmail.com. Anyone interested in volunteering accommodation for protesters should e-mail details to letbabiesvote@gmail.com. To volunteer your support in other areas – photography, social networking, and marshalling participants on the day of the protest – email your support to atzaras@greenpeace.org.
Additional information can be found at ottawaaction.ca.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 4, No. 1 (Sept./Oct. 2011) which can be read online at leveller.ca


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