Keystone Was Never the Issue

A few weeks ago, environmentalists everywhere cheered President Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have expanded existing pipelines that take oil from Canada to the United States. It’s a symbolic win for those who are concerned about climate change and oppose America’s dependence on oil. Yet far more important than the future of Keystone XL is the future of the Canadian oil sands from which it would have pumped.

So, what are oil sands?

Oil sands are, as the name suggests, oil and sand. More specifically, they are vast underground areas of either loose sand or partially consolidated sandstone containing some oil, clay, and water. But this oil isn’t the kind you’d see blasting out of the top of a derrick. Instead of smooth black liquid, the oil you find in the sands is “hard as a hockey puck” at 50 degrees. This oil, too thick to flow or pump without being heated, is called bitumen. There are 315 billion barrels of it in Alberta that are ultimately recoverable, along with a trillion and a half more that are not. That’s  a lot of oil.

So what’s wrong with lots of oil?

Because it’s tougher to get out of the ground, extracting this oil generates between 12% to 22% more emissions. Worse, about a fifth of the oil in the sands is extracted via open-pit or strip mining. This is an ugly and destructive process that disfigures huge expanses of landscape, even if oil companies posit that the land can eventually be reclaimed.

But the real problem is that utilizing the tar sands (and other sources like them) further enables our reliance on fossil fuels. 315 billion barrels is enough to slow, but not stop the inevitable search for other energy sources. We ultimately need to ditch dependence, no matter how plentiful the reserves or lucrative the opportunities. To keep average global warming below two degrees Celsius by 2100, fossil fuel use must be greatly reduced. That means keeping some oil in the ground, especially the dirtiest kinds like the sands.

If oil sands end up being used as planned, Canadians and their American customers may have plenty more crude. But we’ll also see plenty more catastrophic warming too. You don’t have to be an expert to see that this is a bad deal. Students like me will inherit and build the next generation of energy, so let’s make it a good one. Keystone is a symbolic victory for progress on climate, but let's make the next one genuine.

Forest Wakeling is a student in Berkeley, CA and an intern at NCSE. He recently moved here from Vancouver, where he was studying economics at The University of British Columbia. 

Photgraphy by tarsandsaction via Flickr

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