The Syncrude tar sands operation in Canada. Photo by David Dodge of the Pembina Institute.
If we could go back in time before the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, what would we learn? What steps would have helped avert what is now the nation's worst environmental disaster? Could this hindsight help us prevent similar catastrophes in the future? Would our political leaders have the moral compass to "get it right" this time around?A ready-made test case for such an exercise exists in the form of TransCanada's push for a pipeline to transport toxic tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through the American Heartland down to Houston.
In an effort to cut costs, the company is requesting a special safety waiver to use thinner pipes and pump oil at pressures that exceed the normal limits allowed by current pipeline safety regulations. They lack a public emergency plan in the event of a leak and have not demonstrated that emergency responders have been identified, contracted or trained.
These are the same type of cost-cutting and corner-cutting methods that got us into the BP mess. It's hard to believe that, knowing what we know today, we would tolerate another rubber stamp approval for the oil industry whose safety assurances have rung hollow and wreaked havoc.
Not heard much about the reckless expansion of tar sands? Our new report "Tar Sands Invasion" (PDF) is a good primer on tar sands, and the National Wildlife Federation also just released a report on the subject.
It's actually an ongoing disaster coupled with a series of potential disasters, with different risks and concerns as the landscape is annihilated during extraction and the pipelines and refineries wind 2,000 miles across six states.
But the best way to wrap your head around the tar sands issue is to hear from the people who have been and would be impacted in Canada and across the U.S.
In Nebraska, residents are worried about the threats to the Ogallala aquifer. David Kromm, an expert on groundwater management, has written, "the future economy of the High Plains depends heavily on the Ogallala Aquifer, the main source of water for all uses. The Ogallala will continue to be the lifeblood of the region only if it is managed properly to limit both depletion and contamination."
In Kansas, where TransCanada has already been involved with tar sands construction, landowners like Harry Bennett have borne witness to the "pennywise and pound foolish" approach of the company. In his eyes the Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety is in the same class as the much-maligned Minerals Management Service—the cozy relationship with the oil industry and propensity to cut corners is "the same song, second verse" of what we've seen unfold in the Gulf. When it comes to the tar sands pipeline, which will skirt his property, "these pipelines go together with very little oversight."
In Detroit, the Marathon oil refinery would have to be expanded to process the heavy tar sands oil. It's heartbreaking to hear Theresa Landrum talk about their situation:
"When we found out Marathon was bringing in nasty tar sands from Canada, with more emissions at an expanded refinery, we started doing research into what kinds of chemicals would be emitted into the air. We found terrible things like benzene, which affects the nervous system, carbon monoxide, toluene, methyl ethyl ketone, which is hazardous to human health at any level, and other carcinogens.
"My mom had four different cancers and passed away from the last one. My dad died of lung cancer, and I was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. On my block alone, ten people have died of cancer over the last decade. These companies put dollars above human life. Are we not what we eat, drink, and breathe? What are we to do? Where can we go? We're an economically stressed community without resources for health care, or for people to move out. Are we just sitting here waiting to die?"
Oil spills have moved beyond mere threat in Minnesota, according to Elizabeth Sherman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe:
"The Enbridge pipeline runs through the Leech Lake Reservation, and there have been several spills right outside our town that Enbridge hasn't been able to clean up. We're close to Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and the oil from these spills has gotten down into one of our two aquifers and contaminated the water in the top aquifer. The oil is still there, the water is still contaminated, and the damage is still being done. Tribal residents' wells are being contaminated, and now there's a restriction on how much fish we can eat per week because of mercury pollution."
Despite all of these concerns, tar sands oil is poised to blaze a toxic path through America's pipelines and refineries and into our cars and air. The final public hearing on the Keystone XL toxic tar sands pipeline is set for Tuesday in Washington, D.C., and the comment period gives everyone an opportunity to weigh in until July 2.
Let the Obama Administration know that you heard loud and clear these words from his Oval Office speech:
For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires...We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.
Read more about the tar sands:
Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth
Alberta Tar Sands: A North American Overview
Just How Bad Are The Canadian Tar Sands? According to the Conference Board, Almost Benign
Obama Admits Canadian Tar Sands' Carbon Footprint a Problem (Phew...)