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The Keystone Pipeline: Which Side Are You On?

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On Sunday, February 17th, 40,000 Americans gathered in Washington, DC, to protest against approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.  Thousands more demonstrated in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other US cities.  Nonetheless, there is momentum for pipeline construction; a recent Harris Poll found 69 percent of respondents supported it.   However, Environmentalists believe pipeline approval would be the tipping point in the fight against global climate change.


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The 1980-mile Keystone XL pipeline would originate in the tar sands region of Hardisty, Alberta, Canada and extend southeast, crossing the border in Montana and wending its way south to a gulf terminal in Nederland, Texas.  (The pipeline requires presidential approval because it crosses the Canadian border.)  Proponents say Keystone construction would create jobs and promote US energy independence -- the additional 830,000 barrels of oil transported each day would dramatically reduce imports from the Middle East and Venezuela.


Environmentalists have three issues with the pipeline.  First, the extraction of crude oil from the tar sands creates horrendous greenhouse emissions.  In a New York Times editorial, the government's chief climate scientist, James Hansen observed that if the US and Canada cooperate to exploit the tar sands,

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"it will be game over for the climate.  Canada's tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and   coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.  


Environmentalists also worry the Keystone XL pipeline would jeopardize fragile terrain in America's heartland.  Further, they contend the true purpose of the pipeline is not to service the energy needs of the United States but instead China, the world's foremost polluter.


Speaking on the PBS News Hour Keystone spokesman, Scott Segal, dismissed environmental concerns and quipped,  

it seems to me building a state-of-the-art pipeline, which is the most efficient way" to move oil around is the best approach. To move that oil to the west and send it to China on tankers that are fueled by diesel, it leaves a much greater carbon footprint.  In addition, that oil will make it to the United States, whether there's a Keystone pipeline or not.


TransCanada, the primary corporate champion of the pipeline, promises there will be "significant economic benefits to Americans during construction and operations" including "private sector investment of more than $20 billion in the U.S. economy," creation of "20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs," generation of "$585 million in new taxes for states and communities along the pipeline routes," and payment of "more than $5.2 billion in property taxes during the operating life of the pipeline."  Moreover, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will strengthen US relations with Canada and likely reduce our dependence on non-North American oil.

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But would construction of the Keystone XL pipeline make sense?  In their classic, Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins stated the obvious: "[multinational capitalism] does not fully conform to its own accounting principles"  It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs - the natural resources and living systems."  TransCanada, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, big oil companies, and many Washington politicians are engaged in a superficial cost/benefit analysis that emphasizes the short-term economic costs and benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline, but minimizes the long-term environmental consequences.  (Some of the Keystone proponents are global-climate-change deniers.) 


In his State-of-the-Union address, President Obama spoke forcefully about global climate change:

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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