Tar Sands & the Keystone Pipeline: There are Safer, Cleaner and More Prosperous Alternatives

A reprint of an HEC OpEd, originally published in the Indianapolis Star

Which of the following goals would you want America to reach?
a. More jobs
b. Reduced oil from terrorist-sponsoring nations
c. Energy prices that don’t harm working families
d. Protection of our air, land, and water

I’d bet you’d want the unwritten option “e” – all of the above. And if we are to be a nation that does our kids and grandkids proud, we would not think of abandoning any one of these goals. The incredibly controversial Keystone XL pipeline, touted by its tar sands proponents, fails to achieve these four aims.

It poses incredible risks to our environment, would likely increase the price we face at the pump, and ironically would not reduce America’s oil dependence on terrorist-sponsoring nations. Fortunately, there are local, state and national policies — many that would be budget neutral — that would accelerate our transition away from fossil fuels. And these policies, collectively, would address all four worthy national aims above.

Transporting tar sands across America’s Heartland is a great environmental risk. The proposed Keystone Pipeline would run on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the primary source of drinking water for 2 million Americans , and crosses nearly 2,000 streams and rivers. And a major pipeline spill in the heart of our nation is no hypothetical matter. Last year, in Michigan, a pipeline carrying tar sands bitumen spilled 840,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River . Bitumen, which largely does not biodegrade, contains substantially more toxic heavy metals than conventional crude oil. On top of the risks to our waters, this controversial pipeline would accelerate the production of an energy resource that is worse for our climate than conventional oil: Producing and burning oil derived from tar sands creates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil per finished barrel.

Ironically, for all of the risk it poses to our environment, the proposed pipeline does virtually nothing to improve our energy security, and it actually would make working families worse off at the pump. On the former point, the Keystone XL would ship tar sands from Alberta straight to Port Arthur, Texas where it would be largely refined for export to Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Not only would Americans likely not be the customers of this oil, but – according to statements that the pipeline developer made in its own application to the Canadian government – the pipeline would have the ultimate effect of raising oil prices in the Midwest. A University of Calgary economist contends that the pipeline could drive up gas prices by 10 to 20 cents a gallon in our region.

In a time when our nation faces major economic distress, we can’t just critique, we have to problem solve. And the good news is that there are opportunities for Hoosiers to advance solutions at the local, state and federal level to cut our reliance on oil. At the local level, it’s about talking to your city councilor and mayor about promoting zoning and planning policies that speed up the development of pedestrian, bike and transit-friendly neighborhoods. At the state level, it’s about urging – respectfully and with conviction — gubernatorial candidates Mike Pence and John Gregg to advance a new vision for INDOT that puts a much greater emphasis on repairing our degraded infrastructure and strengthening our freight and passenger rail networks. At the federal level, it’s about urging Senator Coats Senator Lugar to press for continued improvements in fuel efficiency for cars and trucks, and to accelerate the deployment of electric and natural gas-powered vehicles. Cumulatively — an array of local, state and federal initiatives – could save 7 million barrels of oil per day by 2020. And what does that mean? Cutting U.S. oil consumption by 30% and oil imports by 60%.

The fossil fuel industry may have a more visible presence in our lives. But the reality is that clean energy jobs, like those at Allison, Cummins, and Delphi, have surpassed those in the fossil fuel industry, according to the Brookings Institution . The clean energy sector grew twice as fast as the economy as a whole over 2003 to 2010. Let’s put America’s full focus into becoming the world’s leader in oil-saving technologies and practices. Our environment, economy, and national security will be the better for it.

Jesse Kharbanda is the Executive Director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. You can reach him at comments@hecweb.org.

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