This week, the new majorities in the U.S. Congress will try to force approval of an oil pipeline that would carry the planet’s dirtiest oil from Canada through the heartland of America to be refined and mostly shipped overseas. Oil companies that want to pipe tar sands through Canada haven’t yet been able to win approval to ship the oil out through a closer port in their own country because Canadian citizens think the pipeline would be too dangerous, and the crude oil too dirty.
We should be asking our lawmakers why something that’s too awful for Canada is somehow good enough for us.
It won’t provide many jobs. The pipeline company, TransCanada, told the U.S. State Department the pipeline would create 35 permanent U.S. jobs. That’s about half as many workers as it takes to run a McDonald’s. There will be temporary jobs for 1,950 construction workers for the two years it takes to build the pipeline, and then they’ll be gone. Nearly 10 times more construction and manufacturing jobs can be created with less risk by building the kind of wind and solar power systems, hybrid cars, and other clean energy and clean transportation projects that created more than 18,000 good-paying jobs nationwide in the third quarter of 2014 alone.
It won’t improve American energy security. Very little of the Canadian tar sands oil would end up in American gas tanks. Most Canadian tar sands crude would be refined for shipment overseas, according to the State Department. Furthermore, if we choose to build this pipeline, we only extend the reliance on fossil fuels that keeps us hostage to global forces we can’t control or predict. Real energy security means reducing our reliance on oil by trimming our demand and diversifying our power mix with cleaner, more sustainable options.
It threatens the American breadbasket. In Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, the pipeline would run within a mile of more than 3,000 wells that provide drinking and irrigation water. It would also cross 1,073 rivers, lakes and streams — from the Yellowstone River in Montana to the Platte River in Nebraska — along with tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. Pipeline blowouts are not rare events, and the transport of tar sands oil threatens all those resources. Between 1994 and late 2014, there were nearly 6,000 pipeline blowouts or other serious incidents, spilling a cumulative 100 million gallons of oil and other hazardous liquids. A spill of tar sands crude, which has proven more damaging and difficult to clean up than conventional oil, would make matters worse.
Canadian tar sands oil is an environmental disaster. Tar sands crude is produced through one of the most destructive industrial practices ever devised to get it out of the ground. It is either strip-mined or forced to the surface by heating fresh water into steam and then injecting it into the earth. So far, the process has destroyed or disturbed more than 300 square miles — enough to cover New York City — of Alberta’s great Boreal forest, one of the last truly wild places on Earth. Waste from the process, containing toxic petroleum chemicals and heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead, is dumped into open pits that leak an estimated 2.9 million gallons of this contaminated waste into the Athabasca River and watershed every day, threatening the food, water and health of indigenous people.
Canadian tar sands oil is a climate disaster. Producing tar sands oil generates vast tons of the dangerous carbon pollution that is driving climate change. From wellhead to tailpipe, tar sands crude generates 17 percent more carbon pollution than it takes to produce, process and burn fuels made from conventional crude oil. President Obama has said that his decision on whether to allow the pipeline to proceed would depend on whether building it would worsen climate change. The answer, clearly, is yes. It would add the equivalent of the carbon pollution from almost 6 million cars over the project’s 50-year lifetime.
Canadians have been telling the oil industry that tar sands pipelines aren’t a good idea for Canada. U.S. lawmakers should explain why on earth they think it’s a good idea for us.
Suh is the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental organization.