Obama Approval of Tar Sands Pipeline Would Doom Global Climate Fight

If President Obama approves an expansion of the Keystone pipeline to carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in Texas, it will completely undermine efforts to halt climate change.  

James Hansen, the world’s leading climatologist says it will be "essentially game over" for the planet’s climate. 

The huge pipeline pits big oil against everyone else, including all the people that live along or near the pipeline: farmers, ranchers, and indigenous leaders. Read our recent coverage including Republican attempts to fast-track the pipeline.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, explains the dire situation in his article, If Brazil Has to Guard Its Rainforest, Why Does Canada/U.S. Get to Burn Its Tar Sands?

Here’s an excerpt:

The planet has already exceeded the safe limit of CO2 in the atmosphere – 350 parts per million. With a rapid transition to cleaner fuels and renewable energy, we may be able to draw down the current level – 390 ppm – by the end of the century, thereby avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. 

But if Canada is allowed to push ahead with development of the oil in Alberta’s tar sands – adding a new source of dirty fuel to the conventional oil and coal that already threaten the atmosphere – the game is over. 

Alberta’s tar sands cover an area larger than the United Kingdom, and, if burned, it will add an estimated 200 ppm of CO2 to the atomosphere, making a return to 350 ppm impossible. 

Despite that, Alberta’s oil minister, Ron Liepert, told the Financial Times that the pronvince is going "full speed ahead" in an effort to double tar sands production by the end of the century, a move that would put the country on par with Saudi Arabia as a top oil producer. 

Currently Canada can’t offload that much oil. Without access to the US economy, Canada will be forced to rely on much more difficult and costly exports to China and other growing oil markets. 

But if the Obama administration approves the huge Keystone pipeline, Canada won’t need any other market.

If the Administration approves the pipeline, it will be to boost US jobs and to decrease reliance on oil from the Middle East. 

But McKibben compares the situation to the rainforests in Brazil. If Brazil said it planned to cut down every tree in the Amazon, the US and every developed country in the world would rush in to convince it otherwise, leaning on the old cliche that the Amazon is the lungs of the planet. 

Yet the same countries seem willing to stand by and watch as Canada (and the US) smoke what might be the planet’s last cigarette. 

Direct Action Planned for August

McKibben sent an email to people that signed up at Climatedirectaction.org last week, calling for people to join him in direct action against expansion of Canada’s tar sands from mid-August through Labor Day weekend.

He says: Indigenous leaders, scientists, and environmentalists on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border this month asked citizens to come to Washington for what may turn into the biggest civil disobedience action in the history of the climate debate.

Day after day we’ll assemble outside the White House in peaceful ranks, modeled on anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s in Washington, which resulted in daily peaceful arrests.
Why the White House? Because this pipeline must be approved by the president, who has to issue a ‘certificate of national interest.’ Congress can’t interfere one way or another – a president who has been hamstrung by science-denying politicians will, for once, be able to make an important call on his own. We think he’ll do the right thing ….
But never underestimate the pressure he’ll be under, for there are hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil in those tar sands. So we need to show our resolve.

Just last week, Lisa Jackson, the director of the EPA, put it this way:  Obama is "doing what he can with the public will he’s been given… They’re not marching on Washington the way they did on Earth Day in the 70s."  Earlier in the month, Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s communications director, put it like this: "We WANT you to push us – we absolutely do."
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Comments on “Obama Approval of Tar Sands Pipeline Would Doom Global Climate Fight”

  1. Anon

    The key is that you seem to be writing that a Canada-US oil sands deal should be stopped, acknowledging that more resources, including more pollution, would be used to get the oil to the other markets it would inevitably be shipped to. So why again should the US not use the tar sands? Why should we pass up on it and watch it get shipped to China? Would environmental groups still complain? No? Yes? Well too bad, we should get as much oil as possible from these tar sands, and make a win-win situation for the countries of the north-american continent. To hell to those with double standards between rich developed countries and semi-poor developing countries.

  2. Follow the money

    All the special interest players looking to scuttle this pipeline are mentioned in this article. There are many who would love to use the power of the governemnt to stop this oil from ever seeing the market – Question: who profits when you can destroy the product and it’s producers? Who ultimatly looses when this governemnt sactioned enviro-vandalisim is allowed to reak havok in the economy?

    Like big oil the enviromentalists have huge money behind them as well – one should take a close look if you want to see the dirty game of buying off politicians , lobbying and sicking the governemnt on your competition.

  3. Jimmy Stevens

    To answer anoy post the simple reason is 1st; there won’t be an economy to speak of if we do not have a “stable” climate. 2nd; the tar sands is already endangering people with pollution, cancer rates are soaring in nearby native communities due to high levels of metals found in the surrounding area. 3rd, This standoff between USA and China on who will act FIRST to stem the tide of carbon emissions has gone on too long. Let us take responsiblity for our emissions here in the United States (after all we have contributed the most to it in years past!.
    There are other options alreay in the marketplace to replace these dirty fuels. However, because of government subsidies and not fully costing the product, coal, tar sands and oil are cheap. Time to apply true market dynamics and recognize the price we pay by consuming them (health, environmental, societal (military to protect Middle East OIL, ect), so let us end the double standard for the energy we use!

  4. Ron_B

    Thanks, Jimmy, for setting the first two comments straight. Business allowed to run rampant making money without concern for the consequences is testimony to the shallowness, short-sightedness, ignorance, and pure greed of all too many. It seems that forward thinking is the one resource we have left untapped in our society.

  5. anon1

    I work in the oil sands, I have been to the area many times and I design and build the equipment that is used in the industry. So I speak with some very specific knowledge of the industry as a whole.

    Most of the growth of the industry is from in-situ recovery methods, not from mining. The article headline would immediately make a person believe that all oil sands are on the surface. Most of the growth is going to come from oil located 300-400 meters below the surface. The footprint on the surface for equipment is very small.

    Mining is the most obvious target as it is entirely visible (from google earth) and is an ugly mess while it is being mined. Coal mines are equally as ugly.

    A reference was made to high cancer rates in the area. There are a couple of issues with this claim. First the sample size is very low, there is an extremely small population rendering any statistics inconclusive. Additionally the bitumen, metals, and other pollutants are already on the surface. If humans were not active in the area there would still be heavy metals in the water. The banks of the river are soggy with oil.

    I agree that the development needs to be sustainable,and if there were another energy source available today it would likely be a better solution than using this oil. This is the last resort, the worst energy we could have, but it’s all that is left. So we use it or stop driving, etc.

  6. Casey

    The tar sands in alberta have been clearly linked to have produced tons of cancer causing pollution that has affected several downstream communities. This is a fact, it has been very well documented, don’t give me the same industry BS that the heavy metals are “naturally” on the surface. Yes there are slight traces of those occurring, but not at the level they’ve found in the water and the tar sands are directly responsible for that.

    It’s not a win for anyone if production is ramped up, we all lose. Simply through energy efficiency measures alone the US could easily offset the oil to be supplied by the XL pipeline. The US will just become even more entrenched with dirty fuels and will be hurt that much more in the future. The very people who live in that part of Canada do not want their land used for this and they should have every right to not allow development on their land. We have lived beyond our means for far too long in the US and its going to catch up with us.



    As a chemist and eneengir I marvel at the stupidity of the american public. On the one hand they demand bigger and better SUVs and on the other they want cheaper and more plentiful gasolene supplies. Unless all the supplies of hydrocarbon fuels available(oil sands, oil shale,offshore California and Florida plus Anwar) are put into the equation,the US can kiss goodbye to its relatively cheap energy.We must make use of the available sources of energy, Nuclear, Coal liquifaction Natural gas,geothermal energy where it is available and minor sources such as solar power, wind energy. We have very large amounts of natural gas which should be used to replace the use of oil for heating.Finally ethanol should not be made from corn, the energy required for conversion makes it a lousy tradeoff.


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