Earth to White House: Keystone XL Pipeline Poses Major Risks


The White House and Tar Sands

A ten-minute film capturing the grassroots movement against the Keystone XL, a 1700-mile pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, CA across the United States for refinement and export on the Gulf Coast. Join us at the White House on Nov. 6 to tell President Obama to say no to the pipeline. More information at

Tar Sands Project Threatens Global Climate Stability

By James E. Hansen, September 2, 2011 – Published in Climate Story Tellers

Tar Sands Action organized a civil disobedience sit–in at The White House to oppose construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that began on August 20 and will culminate in a big rally on September 3rd. On August 29 I joined 60 religious leaders and other fellow protestors. I was arrested that day.

Tar Sands and Unconventional Fossil Fuels

In a previous post “Silence Is Deadly” I wrote, “The environmental impacts of tar sands development include: irreversible effects on biodiversity and the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife particularly bird and caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities.”

In this Feb. 28, 2008 file photo, rail cars arrive in Milton, N.D., loaded with pipes for a Keystone Pipeline project. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Grand Forks Herald, Eric Hylden

In this Feb. 28, 2008 file photo, rail cars arrive in Milton, N.D., loaded with pipes for a Keystone Pipeline project. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Grand Forks Herald, Eric Hylden

Now, I’ll illustrate the emissions scenario from potential burning of tar sands oil and other unconventional fossil fuels (UFF) as contrasted with conventional fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal). Figure 1 helps make clear why the tar sands and other unconventional fossil fuels ought not to be developed and burned. The purple bars show the total emissions to date from the conventional fossil fuels. These past emissions, plus a smaller contribution from net deforestation, are the cause of the CO2 increase from 280 to 391 ppm — where we are today. I wrote before, “Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth.”

Figure 1: Total conventional fossil fuel emissions (purple) and 50% of unconventional resources (blue)

The blue bar is 50% of known UFF resources. Supporters of UFF development argue that only 15% of the tar sands resource is economically extractable, thus we may exaggerate their threat. On the contrary, Figure 1 is a conservative estimate of potential emissions from tar sands because: the economically extractable amount grows with technology development and oil price; the total tar sands resource is larger than the known resource, possibly much larger; extraction of tar sands oil uses conventional oil and gas, which will show up as additions to the purple bars in Figure 1; development of tar sands will destroy overlying forest and prairie ecology, emitting biospheric CO2 to the atmosphere.

We show in “The Case for Young People” that it is probably feasible to avoid dangerous climate tipping points, but only if conventional fossil fuel emissions are phased down rapidly and UFFs are left in the ground. If governments allow infrastructure for UFFs to be developed, either they don’t “get it” or they simply don’t care about the future of young people.

Preserving creation for future generations is a moral issue as monumental as ending slavery in the 19th century or fighting Nazism in the 20th century.

See Related: “Climate Haywire, Pipelines Bursting, Time to Stop the Keystone XL,” WilderUtopia

Jack Eidt, “SpOIL: Tar Sands Pipelines Threaten Great Bear Rainforest,”

Jack Eidt, “World’s Dirtiest Oil: Alberta Tar Sands,”

Citizen’s Arrest on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?

George Bush confessed our addiction to oil. Taking tar sands oil amounts to borrowing a dirty needle from a neighbor addict. Fortunately, Congress adopted and Bush approved the Energy Independence and Security Act 2007, which was intended to prevent US agencies from buying alternative fuels that generate more pollution in their life cycle than conventional fuel from customary petroleum sources. Tar sands oil not only exceeds conventional petroleum, but the energy used in mining, processing, and transporting tar sands oil makes it slightly worse — in terms of CO2 produced per unit energy — than coal.

Who would drive a car powered by coal!?

This raises a question: if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, can we make a citizen’s arrest on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for violating the Energy Independence and Security Act?

If they were put in the back of a hot paddy wagon in DC and held for at least several hours with their hands tied behind their backs, maybe they would have a chance to think over this matter more clearly.

Real Solution

Let’s address a common criticism: “It does no good to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, because other pipelines will be built.” Indeed, pipeline opposition and other stopgap actions (closing a coal–fired power plant, etc.) have little ultimate effect unless we put in place the real solution.

Let me address the following points that would lead to the real solution:

a. ‘Law of gravity’: as long as fossil fuels are cheapest, someone will burn them.

b. Fossil fuels are cheapest because: direct/indirect subsidies; human health costs not paid by fossil fuel companies; and climate disruption costs not paid by fossil fuel companies.

c. Only workable solution: rising across–the–board flat fee on carbon, collected from fossil companies at point where fossil fuel enters domestic market (domestic mine or port of entry).

d. Larson rate — $10/ton of CO2/year — at year 10 yields 30% reduction in US emissions.

e. 30% of US emissions is ~ 13 Keystone XL pipelines!!!

By year 10 the Larson fee is equivalent to $1/gallon of gasoline. The public will not allow this to happen unless 100% of the collected fee is distributed to the public, which could be done electronically to bank accounts or debit cards. By year 10 the fee collected from fossil fuel companies would be over $500 billion per year, providing $2–3,000 per legal adult resident of the country.

Jim Dipeso, Policy Director of Republicans for the Environment, endorses this approach, saying that it “makes use of market principles, by prodding the market to tell the truth about the costs of carbon–based energy through prices. It would not impose mandates on consumers or businesses, create new government agencies, or add a penny to Uncle Sam’s coffers.”

Further: “Businesses would seek out more opportunities to improve their energy efficiency. Other businesses would sell products and services that enable them to do so. Low carbon energy sources would be more competitive with high–carbon sources.”

Finally: “Transparent. Market–based. Does not enlarge government. Leaves energy decisions to individual choices. Takes a better–safe–than–sorry approach to throttling back oil dependence and keeping heat–trapping gases out of the atmosphere. Sounds like a conservative climate plan.”

How could this be achieved, given our well–oiled coal–fired Congress? Not easily.

Obama had the chance when he was elected. He would have needed to explain to the public that national security, energy security and climate security all yield the same requirement: an honest price on carbon emissions that provides market–based incentives for moving to clean energies.

Obama lost his chance for a spot on Mount Rushmore by not addressing the moral issue of the century. He would have needed Teddy Roosevelt’s drive and Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to speak to the public. A second chance if re–elected? It would be much harder, even if characters like Inhofe are smoked out by then. And it cannot be done with a sleight–of–hand approach, pretending there will be little impact on fossil fuel prices as in the proposed cap–and trade, or with government picking winners as in the would–be “green jobs” program.

The energy/climate matter will be addressed eventually. But will it be in time and which country will lead? There is an incentive to be the first to put an honest price on carbon: future global technologic and economic leadership. Europe squandered its resources on government specified inefficient technologies. If the United States continues on its current path, and if China seizes the opportunity to be the leader by putting an honest price on carbon, it will probably mean second–rate economic status for the United States for most of this century.

If President Obama chooses the dirty needle (approves the Keystone XL pipeline) it is game over (for the earth’s climate) because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well–oiled coal–fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction (of fossil fuels). Canada is going to sell its dope (dirty tar sands oil), if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long–wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict.

Have no doubt — if the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is approved, we will be back, and our numbers will grow. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must find a leader who is worthy of our dreams.

Dr. James E. Hansen is director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Hansen is best known for his research in the field of climatology. In 1988, Hansen’s testimony before the US Senate was featured on the front page of the New York Times and helped raise broad awareness of global warming. Hansen’s work has inspired scientists and activists around the world to fight for climate change solutions. In recent years, Hansen has become an activist for action to mitigate the effects of climate change, which on several occasions has led to his arrest. In 2009 his book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity was published.

Copyright 2011 James E. Hansen

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Emma Pullman of DeSmogBlog and Heather Libby of TckTckTck created a Keystone pipeline infographic, and in their statement, provided the following description:


State Department’s Environmental Analysis Gives Keystone XL Pipeline an Initial Green Light

By Lee-Ann Goodman, Canadian Press

WASHINGTON – The U.S. State Department says TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline poses no major risks to the environment and will not spur further oilsands production in Alberta, moving the controversial project one step further to a final decision by the Obama administration.

 The State Dept. report was not a surprise to the American environmental movement, for whom opposition to the pipeline has become a passionate rallying cry in the aftermath of failed climate change legislation last year. (Photo: Ben Powless for Tar Sands Action/CC BY)

Insisting repeatedly that its long-awaited assessment was “not a rubberstamp,” the department’s Kerri-Ann Jones said Friday there’s no evidence the pipeline will significantly impact the six U.S. states in its path as it carries crude from northern Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

“This is not the rubberstamp for this project,” said Jones, disputing several big American environmental groups who immediately decried it as such.

“The permit that is required for this project has not been approved or rejected at all … it should not be seen as a lean in any direction either for or against this pipeline. We are in a state of neutrality.” Canadian officials intend to continue to develop technologies that will lessen the greenhouse gas emissions associated with oilsands production, according to the analysis. “We are working closely with them,” Jones told a conference call in the U.S. capital. “We closely follow what’s going on in terms of international regulations in this area.” She added that oilsands production will continue with or without the Keystone XL pipeline.

The Obama administration now has 90 days to determine whether the controversial project is in the national interest of the United States. In that determination, Jones said, State Department officials will consider the environmental assessment as well as the economic impact of the pipeline and “foreign policy concerns.” The outcome wasn’t a surprise to the American environmental movement, for whom opposition to the pipeline has become a passionate rallying cry in the aftermath of failed climate change legislation last year.

Leading environmentalists say the State Department has refused to fully assess the risks.

The Natural Resources Defense Council accused the State Department of failing to study pipeline safety measures or examine alternate routes that would avoid the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska, a crucial source of water in the state. In fact, the State Department report said TransCanada needed to conduct more study, and possibly add more anti-spill precautions, around the aquifer. Jones add that alternative routes had also been studied.

“We feel that the proposed route of the applicant is the preferred route … alternative routes were either worse or similar,” she said.

The NRDC’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz expressed dismay at the State Department’s assessment in a statement. “It is utterly beyond me how the administration can claim the pipeline will have ‘no significant impacts’ if they haven’t bothered to do in-depth studies around the issues of contention,” she said. “The public has made their concerns clear and the administration seems to have ignored them. If permitted, the proposed Keystone XL tarsands pipeline will be a dirty legacy that will haunt President Obama and Secretary Clinton for years to come.”

Jim Lyon, senior vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation, said the analysis was “strike 3 for the State Department” after two “failed rounds” of environmental review and warned of legal woes ahead. “The document still fails to address the key concerns for landowners and wildlife,” he said. “It is almost certain to be scrutinized in other venues, including a probable legal challenge. This only escalates the controversy in a process that is far from over.”

The State Department analysis comes as anti-pipeline activists continue a two-week civil disobedience campaign outside the White House. More than 300 people, including Canadian actress Margot Kidder, have been arrested as they try to convince U.S. President Barack Obama to block the pipeline. As many as 54 more were arrested on Friday. Environmental activists say Keystone XL is a disaster waiting to happen, pointing to several recent spills along pipelines, and are opposed to Alberta’s oilsands due to the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions involved in their production.

Proponents, meantime, say the pipeline will create thousands of jobs and help end U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil. TransCanada president Russ Girling welcomed the State Department report. “Support for Keystone XL continues to grow because the public, opinion leaders and elected officials can see the clear benefits that this pipeline will deliver to Americans,” he said in a news release.

“The fundamental issue is energy security. Through the Keystone system, the U.S. can secure access to a stable and reliable supply of oil from Canada where we protect human rights and the environment, or it can import more higher-priced oil from nations who do not share America’s interests or values.”

© 2011 Canadian Press

See: Tar Sands Action


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About the Author regularly posts articles, photo essays, features, and documentaries from around the web that illuminate the challenges to coexistence between city and wild, developed and developing, human and other. To reach out, write to jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow us on Twitter @WilderUtopia