12.14.11

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

Mr. President, the House Republicans have sent us a payroll tax bill that is more of a political campaign commercial than a piece of serious legislation.  Extending this tax break for ordinary Americans evidently has been a tough sell in the other body, unlike the eagerness found there for even more tax relief for the very wealthy.  Among the many unrelated, controversial provisions they have attached as sweeteners is one that would force the President to approve the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.  Proponents of this tar sands project provision argue that it belongs on this bill because building the pipeline would create jobs.

Any construction project creates jobs.  We could create thousands of jobs by investing in clean solar and wind energy, as the Chinese have done.  And people can disagree about building the Keystone pipeline.  But there is a lot more to it than the short term jobs it would create, and trying to jam it through Congress on this bill in the waning hours of the session is little more than a political stunt.

It was about 15 months ago that I first learned about the plan to build a pipeline to transport crude oil from tar sand strip mines in Alberta across the U.S.-Canada border and down through the Midwestern United States to refineries and ports in Texas.

Tar sands are a particularly dirty source of petroleum, from extraction to refinement.  As I looked into this issue I saw some of the photographs of the boreal forest area where it is extracted, and I was shocked.  

Anyone who is interested in this issue, whether or not you think building the pipeline is a good idea, should look at the photographs.  They depict an extraordinarily beautiful landscape that has been ravaged by heavy machinery, vast ponds filled with polluted water and sludge, and a scared wasteland where forests used to be.

It is one of the more graphic examples of how our collective, insatiable thirst for oil has pillaged the fragile environment of this planet.  Our demand for fossil fuels will continue to grow exponentially unless we come up with a comprehensive, national energy plan, and have the will to implement it.

We all know that the extraction of oil, minerals, timber and other natural resources often harms the environment.  But there are degrees of harm.  Removing the tops of mountains and dumping the refuse in rivers and ravines, or extracting heavy oil from tar sands, are among the most energy intensive and destructive. 

Under the law, the State Department has the responsibility to approve or disapprove the pipeline because it crosses an international boundary.  More than a year ago, I and ten other Senators sent a letter to the State Department raising concerns about the proposed pipeline and the impact of tar sands oil on global warming, and asking a number of questions about the Department’s decision-making process.  Eight months later we received a response, which answered some of our questions and raised others.

I and other Senators sent two additional letters to the Department about the pipeline, most recently about reports of a possible conflict of interest between the contractor that performed the environmental review, Cardno/Entrix, and the energy company, TransCanada.  

There have also been emails indicating a less than arms length relationship between a State Department official at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and a lobbyist for TransCanada.  And a month ago the State Department’s Inspector General announced the beginning of an investigation into whether conflicts of interest tainted the environmental review process.

What began as basic questions and fundamental concerns about the pipeline has evolved into a significant controversy regarding the impact the pipeline will have upon our Nation’s energy policy and continuing dependence on fossil fuels, the irreversible harm to the environment and the acceleration of climate change, and the potential for oil spills that could contaminate a key aquifer underlying an area of critical agricultural importance that hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners depend on for irrigation and drinking water.

From the beginning, I have expressed misgivings about the State Department’s ability to conduct a thorough, credible investigation of a project of this complexity that involves issues about which it has limited expertise.  There are reports of inexperienced staff handling the lion’s share of the work, and it is not surprising that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have raised concerns and identified flaws in the State Department’s analysis.

It is my impression that the State Department, from the outset, approached this with a sense of inevitability.  What they did not anticipate was the strong reaction of Members of Congress of both parties, including several from Midwestern states that have been coping with multiple oil spills from the original Keystone pipeline that company officials have treated as inconsequential.  They also did not anticipate the strong opposition from ordinary Americans who pay close attention to environmental and energy policy issues, for whom tar sands oil is particularly repugnant. 

Concerns about the consequences of this project have united not only those living along the proposed route, but people across the Nation, including in Vermont, as well as in Canada, who care about the environment, both in this country and in Canada, and who understand the need to wean our Nation from oil and other fossil fuels and to invest in renewables and energy efficiency.

Every President since the 1970s has spoken of the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and particularly foreign oil.  But despite all the speeches, year after year we are more dependent on these finite, polluting sources of energy than ever before.

Today, energy companies are spending staggering amounts of money in search of new sources of oil and gas in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, where its extraction involves great risks to the people involved, the environment, and endangered species.

We even send our young servicemen and women half way around the world to fight wars, in part to ensure our continued access to a ready supply of oil.  It has become a national security priority.

We have lost valuable time, and there are no quick fixes.  No matter what we do today, later this week, or later this month, this country will be dependent on fossil fuels for many years to come.  But simply replacing Middle Eastern oil with Canadian oil without creating new, dependable sources of renewable energy and improving efficiency in the energy we use does not alleviate the national security and economic risks associated with a global oil market that is vulnerable to manipulation and disruption.

There is also much more we could do to make use of what we have by wasting less, improving end use efficiency, and increasing our use of renewable sources of energy.  While TransCanada and its supporters extol the virtues of the Keystone XL pipeline, as the Minority Leader and other have done, simply by reducing waste we could eliminate entirely the need for the energy produced from the oil that would flow through the pipeline.

Mr. President, I come from a state that shares a border with Canada.  My wife’s family is Canadian.  I have a great fondness for that “giant to the north.”  But this issue is not about United States relations with Canada.  We are inseparable neighbors, friends, and allies.  There are strong views about this pipeline, pro and con, in both countries.  As Americans, we have to do what is right for our country’s energy future, for the environment, for our citizens.

Some have argued that if this pipeline is not built, TransCanada will simply build a pipeline to the coast of British Columbia and export the oil to China.  But there are significant obstacles and no indication that such an alternative route is a viable option. 

Others maintain that the carbon emissions from extracting and refining this oil would not appreciably exceed those from oil shipped by tanker from the Middle East, but they do not address the environmental harm and pollution caused by the strip mining and separation process.

TransCanada has flooded the media with dire warnings about the American jobs that will be lost if the pipeline is rejected, which our Republican friends have echoed, trying to turn this into a campaign issue.  But most of these are construction jobs that will disappear once the pipeline is built.  And the choice is not between jobs or no jobs.  They do not mention the tens or hundreds of thousands of American jobs that could be created by investing in other cleaner, renewable sources of energy, which unlike tar sands oil will not be used up in a few short decades.   

Last month, in response to concerns about the sensitive and crucial aquifer that the pipeline would traverse in the Midwest, the White House announced that the State Department will consider alternative routes through Nebraska and that this would delay a decision on the pipeline until 2013.  This is positive, but it ignores the many other reasons to reject this project altogether. 

It is my hope that on further reflection, the President will treat the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline as an opportunity to draw a line between our past and future energy policies.

Fossil fuels are finite, inefficient, and dirty.  The cost we pay at the gas pump bears no resemblance to the long-term environmental and health costs borne by society as a whole. 

We cannot lessen our reliance on fossil fuels by simply talking about it. 

We cannot do it by putting our goals for a better future under the pillow and leaving any real action to future generations. 

We cannot do it by hoping that a scientific genius will suddenly discover an unlimited source of energy that costs pennies and does not pollute. 

Nor should we do it by spending huge amounts of money, time, talent and American ingenuity to search the farthest reaches of the globe for every last drop of oil, regardless of how dangerous or harmful to the environment.

Will the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline have the cataclysmic consequences that some of its opponents predict?  No one can say for sure.  If anyone had asked officials at British Petroleum on April 9, 2010, about the probability of a disaster like the one that occurred the next day when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, they likely would have dismissed it as farfetched.  It turns out they were violating multiple safety regulations. 

Are we going to change the pipeline’s route to avoid the aquifer, only to continue to act as if global warming is nothing to worry about?  That we can continue to burn more and more fossil fuels, emitting more and more carbon into the atmosphere, and destroying the landscape while we are at it?

This pipeline would perpetuate a costly dependence that has gone on for a century, for which we all share in the blame.  Keystone XL would once again do nothing to address the problems associated with fossil fuels.  It would virtually assure more oil spills, it would do nothing to promote conservation and reduce waste, and it would do nothing to spur investment in clean energy alternatives.  

Most importantly, it would provide yet another excuse for once again punting the urgent, national security imperative of developing a sustainable energy policy for this country.  That is what the decision about the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline has come to represent regardless of what route it takes.

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