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The Keystone XL Pipeline:
Will Humanity's Survival Interests Prevail?

By Dr. Peter Custers

20 October, 2011

The stakes for oil corporations involved in the project are large, very large. But so are the stakes for environmental activists fighting the threat of climate change. In August last, well over a thousand people courted arrest in front of the White House in Washington D.C. The target of their anger is a huge project for construction of an oil pipeline called Keystone XL. The new pipeline, if materialized, will run from the province of Alberta in Canada throughout the entire length of the United States, and all the way up to oil refineries located in Texas, along the southern coast of the US. Extra large, XL, the pipeline surely will be – 1700 miles in length, as compared with the existing Keystone pipeline which is 1200 miles long. Furthermore, the construction project does not stand alone, but is part and parcel of a scheme aimed at expanding the extraction of bitumen, - an unconventional type of oil produced from tar sands. Already, Canada is the country where the very largest amount of bitumen is extracted worldwide, much of it being exported to Canada’s neighbor, the US. But in case US President Obama gives the green light and Keystone XL be built, the extraction of bitumen is expected to double – from roughly 900 thousand barrels to 1.8 million barrels per day! Hence, the lobby of Canadian and international oil corporations seeking to profit from expanded extraction of tar sands oil is intense.

Yet since the end of last year the Keystone scheme has become the source of a major public controversy in the US. To understand why, it is necessary to briefly look at the nature of bitumen extraction. This unconventional oil is basically mined in two different ways. In surface mining, trees and plant cover are stripped away from the top-layers of the soil so as to expose bitumen located beneath. Here there is massive digging: two tons of bitumen-rich material need to be collected to obtain one single barrel of oil. Hence, the open pit mining results in huge, gaping holes in the earth scarring Canada’s landscape. But the main method used to reach bitumen is called in-situ mining, where high-pressure steam is injected into layers of bitumen-rich soil below the surface, to separate the oil from the sands and make sure it can be piped to the surface. Here, water needs to be heated in order to produce the steam, which in turn requires huge quantities of energy. Both methods of mining reportedly require large quantities of water, - from 3 to 7 barrels of water per 1 barrel of oil! Much of the polluted water ends up in lake-size tailing ponds. And this is only one of the environmentally destructive consequences of bitumen extraction. For the given mining also results in destruction of huge chunks of boreal forests, in ‘perennial’ losses of biodiversity and in oil spills, as the bitumen is transported towards US refineries. One of the spills US opponents of the Keystone XL project have referred to, is an oil spill caused by the existing Keystone pipeline, which has led to pollution of a vast stretch of the Kalamazoo river.

These environmental implications of bitumen extraction and transportation can in no way be belittled. Yet there is one implication of the scheme that is truly global in kind, threatening the bare survival of humanity. Already, worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases in 2010 have reached record levels. Against this backdrop, the danger that Canadian and US emissions of green house gases will increase due to expanded extraction of bitumen, concerns humanity as a whole. And the impact on emissions to all accounts will be dramatically negative. Surely, quantitative assessments vary, but they all point in the same direction. According to a peer-reviewed study of Canada’s Environmental Ministry released in August, Canadian emissions of greenhouse gases are set to increase, perhaps even double between 2005 and 2020, if oil sand extraction be expanded. Again, the Agency for Environmental Protection, EPA, a US governmental institution, has calculated that CO2 emissions from extraction and up to the sale of tar sands oil at gasoline stations, are 82 percent higher for tar sand oil than for conventional crude. Calculations put forward by independent critics of the pipeline project are even higher. The Polaris Institute, a Canadian research centre, for instance cites data indicating emissions in the case of bitumen extraction are three to four times the normal rate (!). Figures on emissions put forward by the International Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) too indicate that any extraction of tar sands oil is prohibitive. Hence, opponents of the Keystone XL project believe that all attempts aimed at preventing accelerated climate change will be undermined, if the Canadian and US government fail to scrap the pipeline project.

Yet if Keystone XL is an insane project when discussed from the perspective of humanity’s survival – how to explain the adamant attitude of the oil corporations? Is this simply a question of corporate greed, and the desire to reap extraordinary profits? The answer seems less definite at first. For profitability of tar sands extraction for a long time was not assured. Mining bitumen is expensive, - it can only be assured if the market price of crude oil stays at a high level, - such as the plus 90 Dollar level prevailing at the moment. Hence, to clarify the behavior of oil corporations seeking to extract bitumen, one needs to refer to the historical peak oil production has reached: the fact that oil extraction from conventional sources in 2006 reached an all time high, as the International Energy Agency (IEA), the institution defending the interests of Western oil consumers, has admitted late last year. Since the present high market price of crude is not caused by conjunctural factors, but is the outcome of the depletion of conventional sources, - extraction of crude from tar sands has become very profitable, and more assuredly so than ever in the past. One therefore understands the pressure that is building up on policymakers. They are asked to scrap their climate change agenda, - and prioritize a corporate agenda which to all accounts is threatening for humanity and other species on earth.

Rests to discuss the outcome of the ongoing controversy over the Keystone XL project. Here, it is important to note that opposition to the project does not just come from climate change- and environmental activists. Their opposition is crucial: in December 2010 a campaign against tar sands oil extraction was launched which is being supported by the entire range of US environmental organizations. But there is more. In June, 2010, 50 members of the US Congress spoke out against construction of the pipeline. Further, the chairperson of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman has urged the US State Department, which bears responsibility because the planned pipeline is cross-border, to block the project. So far the State Department has only drafted environmental assessments of the scheme deemed scandalous. Meanwhile, President Obama has been sitting on the fence, instead of rejecting the scheme outright. In fact, his pronunciations on tar sand extraction made during his visit to Canada in 2009 indicate that he is bending over towards the oil lobby and might well bury the pledges to fight climate change he made when canvassing for the US Presidency. The climate dangers heralding from tar sand oil extraction are twofold: a massive loss of Canadian boreal forests which presently act as a reserve of CO2; plus dramatically increased emissions of greenhouse gases. Hence, if the project be approved, Canada will surely default on the obligations it undertook under the Kyoto Protocol. And any commitments Obama has made will become meaningless. Shouldn’t the world’s most vulnerable countries jointly grill the two, i.e. the American and Canadian governments, when the next World Climate Conference is held in November?

Dr. Peter Custers

Leiden, the Netherlands, October 18, 2011





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