Keystone XL: Ambiguity is the Enemy of Progress

By Sophia Har 2-05-2014
Photo by Liz Schmitt / Sojourners
Photo by Liz Schmitt / Sojourners

The glow of electric candles dotted the landscape of Lafayette Park on Monday night as dozens of women and men gathered in front of the White House to protest the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Similar demonstrations took place in more than 200 cities across the country.

The Keystone XL pipeline is a $5.4 billion project proposed by TransCanada Corporation, a large energy company based in Alberta, Canada. Stretching 1,179 miles from Alberta to Nebraska, Keystone XL would join sections of the pipeline that already extend from Nebraska to Texas, carrying crude oil from the tar oil sands of Canada to refineries in the Midwest and along the Gulf Coast. According to the Keystone project website, the pipeline will decrease American dependence on foreign oil while also creating thousands of new jobs and generating economic growth.

Friday’s release of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) left proponents of Keystone feeling hopeful that their project will soon be underway and environmentalists revitalizing efforts to make sure that does not happen; the report states that the construction of the Keystone XL would not significantly harm the environment and that the negative symptoms of climate change would persist regardless of its operation.

Although SEIS presents a thorough analysis of the potential environmental effects of Keystone XL, its murky stance on whether the pipeline actually harms the environment and its approval of the transport of dirty oil are alarming.

For one, the oil in question contains tar, a chemical that requires more energy to be extracted and processed than it emits. As reported in SEIS and summarized by Climate Central, “the production and processing of a barrel of tar sands crude releases 17 percent more carbon emissions than the average barrel of crude produced elsewhere.” Scientists have capped the greenhouse gas limit at 350 parts per million (ppm), which we have exceeded at 396.81 ppm. We don’t need to spend another $5 billion to exacerbate the situation.

The proposed pipeline is expected to spill up to 100 times in its lifetime, which will not only pollute water sources and wildlife habitat but also endanger the health of individuals living near the pipeline. Indigenous communities living near tar sand deposits in Canada are especially vulnerable as they already experience direct exposure to the oil and consume contaminated food and water. Moreover, the large amounts of sulfur dioxide emitted from tar sand oil refineries weaken respiratory health, causing problems from wheezing to asthma to chronic lung conditions.

The harmful effects of Keystone XL mentioned above are no secret. Undoubtedly, education is one of the most effective tools in promoting justice, but in the information age, the barrier to progress is not mere ignorance. The force that holds back progress is acquiescence to ambiguity. With strong voices calling from all sides of the Keystone controversy and political rhetoric thrown into the mix, definitions remain unclear. For instance, the president has stated his approval of the project only if it “ does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” This sounds reasonable, but how is “significantly” measured? With such loosely defined standards, it is not surprising that people are confused or disinterested and thereby oblivious to the harmful implications of Keystone XL.

Ambiguity not only creates confusion but also distracts from the reality that the United States is addicted to oil. Despite the evidence that the negative consequences of its addiction outlast the positive, the U.S. caters to companies that feed its habit, chooses the type of crude oil that leaves larges carbon footprints, and listens to the experts who say what it wants to hear. Every ambiguous statement on the ecological impact of Keystone is another moment of inaction by the government.

The U.S. needs to quit its crude oil habit. TransCanada needs to see the individuals whose health is directly threatened by Keystone XL. The president and legislators alike need to act for the welfare of not only this generation but for the generations to come, if we indeed want to see the flourishing of future generations. We need to admit to our addiction to oil and identify its harmful ecological impact for what it is.

As a person of faith, I want to see our landscapes, waters and skies restored to wholeness. I am compelled by the love I’ve received from God and God’s people to work alongside others for the common good of all. Having experienced the crisp June evenings of Minnesota as well as the asthma-inducing smog of Hong Kong, I know both the beauty of fresh air and green spaces and the dullness of pollution and gray skies. The chances of enjoying the former are quickly dwindling at our current rate of oil consumption, but we still have time to prevent further environmental degradation, if not for future generations then at least for those of us who still look forward to the rest of their lives, no matter our age.

So there we stood on Monday night, huddling together with our signs and candles and raising our voices loud enough for the president to hear from inside the White House. And in the next 90 days as President Barack Obama deliberates over the decision to approve the pipeline, we will continue to stand. Even as men and women in power overlook the obvious, we will stand, because just as much as we want to block the way of Keystone XL, we want to build up the welfare of our environment and communities.

Sophia Har is advertising assistant at Sojourners.


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