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The Keystone XL Pipeline and Permafrost

The Keystone XL Pipeline and Permafrost

This morning’s New York Times had two front page stories which together illustrate the tunnel vision at the national political level. One story was that the Senate had reached a deal to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, which the Obama administration wanted, with a requirement attached, as the Times put it, to “speed the decision process for the construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast – a provision necessary to win over Republicans who opposed the tax break.”

The oil pipeline is the bad news Keystone XL project would move tar sands oil from northern Alberta, Canada, 1,700 miles across the U.S. to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. The oil would be pumped through a three foot wide pipe that would cross North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. I oppose the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline for several reasons: 1) we should focus on using less oil rather than seeking new and better dealers to feed our oil addiction; 2) the tar sands oil mining process is itself dirty and energy intensive; and 3) the pipeline to bring the tar sand oil to the Texas Gulf Coast will be both expensive and risky to the groundwater and land it would pass over.

The second story is headlined “As Permafrost Warms, Scientists See a Threat” and continues for a full page inside. Permafrost is continuously frozen ground which covers nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, including much of Canada, Alaska and Siberia. The permafrost contains carbon frozen from plants and animals that died 30,000 and more years ago and have remained in deep freeze underground since then. Climate change in these northern regions is allowing permafrost thaws and accompanying release of carbon dioxide and methane from long-buried carbon. Greenhouse gases are being freed in volumes which are sizeable, increasing and dangerous.

I spoke this morning to intelligent and good-hearted friends whose reaction to the Keystone XL project was something like “We have to get the energy we need someplace” and that the permafrost melting effects were uncertain.  They assume that America needs to maintain our current and projected levels of oil consumption to avoid bad things happening to the economy.  I say that the answer that fits both stories, the only answer that makes sense, is for America to sharply reduce its energy consumption.  We are running ahead with blinders on if we accept the premise that our addition to oil is sacrosanct, and that somehow our environmental future will take care of itself.  America, open your eyes.


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