I’m not finding a lot of coverage of a really important decision made by the Obama administration yesterday to allow construction of a pipeline to help move synthetic crude oil from the Alberta tar sands into the United States.
Perhaps it’s just that the decision by the U.S. State Department was expected. Or maybe it’s that a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually made the decision Aug. 3 but waited until these doggiest of the dog days to let the world know.
In any case, Steven Mufson of The Washington Post has the best story I’ve been able to find this side of the border, while Sheila McNulty’s daily was a worthwhile follow to her earlier in-depth reporting on the tar sands for the Financial Times (registration required). And for more background, don’t miss National Geographic’s treatment.
Folks, this is one to watch carefully. We’re talking about the largest proven petroleum reserve outside Saudi Arabia. But it comes at a high cost:
- By some estimates, a bringing barrel of this bitumen-based oil to market and burning it generates five times the amount of greenhouse gases that a conventional barrel of crude does.
- The process mows down Canada’s boreal forest, where natives have hunted moose and caribou for thousands of years, and leaves behind lakes of toxic waste that are measured in square miles. (They can be seen from space, even — more fun facts from desmogblog.)
- Ultimately, development of the oil fields is expected to cover an area as large as New York state.
- When the tar sands oil is refined, the refiners have to deal with high levels of toxic lead, nickel and mercury.
- Already there are hints that the mining may be sickening those who live around it.
State’s 28-page decision (click “ROD/NID” on the left) says, basically, we need the oil and we need it from Canada:
The Alberta Clipper Project would serve the national interest, in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil producing regions and countries, by providing additional access to a proximate, stable, secure supply of crude oil with minimum transportation requirements from a reliable ally and trading partner of the United States with which we have free trade agreements that further augments the security of this energy supply.
The decision blows off complaints about the intensity of the greenhouse-gas production involved:
Concerns have been raised about higher-than-average levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with oil sands crude. The Administration has considered these concerns and considers that on balance they do not outweigh the benefits to the national interests identified above. The United States will continue to reduce reliance on oil through conservation and energy efficiency measures, such as recently increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, as well as through the pursuit of comprehensive climate legislation and a global agreement on climate change. In addition, the United States will cooperate with the Canadian government through the Clean Energy Dialogue and other processes to promote the deployment of technologies that reduce our respective GHG emissions.
Enviros aren’t just accepting this. Earthjustice is planning to file suit. Here is what Earthjustice attorney Sara Burt told Mufson:
By approving this pipeline, we are committing to another generation of dependence not only on fossil fuels but on the dirtiest, most greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels. We thought that the Obama administration would walk the walk on this, but it appears that that’s not happening.
In the category of rippling effects, this pipeline’s OK may well drive the oil sands development forward with enough momentum to also make the proposed pipeline to the BC coast more likely to occur. One of the many consequences of this would be an increase in large tanker traffic in one of the world’s more pristine coastal zones. There are few areas in the world’s oceans that have not heard large increases in background noise (which dramatically limits the communication range of large whales), and this would infect yet another region. Carbon, forests, shipping traffic….how many negatives does it take to counterbalance the “need” for more oil?
Jim — Thanks very much for bringing this to our attention. I hadn’t really even considered the effects the B.C. trade might have on marine mammals. Have you been studying this? How about sending me an e-mail at email@example.com so we can continue this discussion?