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Keystone Pipeline: A Death Sentence for Some, Money for Others

Supporters believe a switch from coal to tar sands will eventually lead to an increase in oil/gas production and sales at lower prices, which in turn benefits the greater good of society – American consumers, manufacturers and jobs. However, the pipeline is more than just an economic fix; it is a direct pathway towards an increase of the United State’s long-term dependency on fossil fuels and emissions for decades to come. Admittedly it will be a great accomplishment for the future of energy when tar sands are used as a source of electricity (considering it generates about half the carbon dioxide generated by coal). However they carry a burden of many unforeseen environmental impacts. For instance, the technologies allowing us to access the tar sands, if not properly done, will release vast quantities of methane gas. When released into the atmosphere, methane contributes to climate change more carbon dioxide does. Projections estimate an increase in annual greenhouse gas emissions of 17% from current emissions from crude oil commonly used in the United States.

No one is disagreeing, not even the U.S. Department of State, that the fuel carried in the pipeline would be dirtier than conventional crude. Focusing on emission rates and environmental degradation should not be the main concern or the only opposition standpoint on whether or not the Keystone Pipeline XL plans should proceed. What should be of concern is the refusal to acknowledge all of those involved at risk for potential environmental and health issues caused by the pipeline. In the debate, acknowledging just the potential environmental risks in the final environmental assessment review is not enough; it is the people and animals at risk that need to be acknowledged. The U.S. Department of State addresses human rights issues globally; however the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement report ignores the responsibility and commitment to apply U.S. policies on environmental justice and in addressing human rights issues. For example two potential risks that may potentially threaten human lives involve, the destruction of crucial forests that help decrease the impacts of the dirty fuels by storing the harmful carbon released and are homes to many animals, and the potential health risks (to humans and animals) posed by the polluting of streams and other water bodies that come in contact with the pipeline. Not only will human health be negatively impacted, cultural beliefs and traditions will be as well.

In a statement released on the SEIS report, Chief Allan Adams, whose people (of Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada) live downstream from the source that will flow through this Keystone XL pipeline said, “Expansion of the tar sands means a death sentence for our way for life, destruction of eco-systems vital to the continuation of our inherent treaty rights and massive contributions to catastrophic global climate change, a fate we all share”. Northern Alberta, Canada, where tar sands oil is extracted is also home to many indigenous communities. Important cultural traditions are being threatened because of the tar sands exploration. Communities living downstream from tailing ponds have seen spikes in rates of many health issues such as, rare cancers, lupus, and hyperthyroidism. For example in Chief Allan Adams village, 100 of the 1,200 residents have passed away due to cancer. As tar sand exploration increases, so will the health problems in numbers and in magnitude – unless tar sands production is halted. Unfortunately, tar sand extraction is already occurring, and will happen regardless if the Keystone Pipeline plan is fully implemented or not. Investing in this pipeline will increase the rate of crude oil production and therefore more money into the economy, all at the cost of decreasing the quality of life for indigenous populations.

The pipeline proposal bears unaccounted for environmental injustices that seem to be placed at the end of a list somewhere of ‘important concerns’. As morals and ethics are set aside all that seems to matter in the decision making process is the resulting political and economic leaps. Since when does exploration of natural resources trump human lives? Who has the power to decide what communities suffer and which ones don’t? These unanswered questions are key from an environmental justice standpoint, questions President Obama and the Department of State are unable to adequately answer. The risks and impacts of tar sands are already occurring and affecting someone. Activists need to stop beating a dead horse by trying to stop the construction of the pipeline with environmental claims, and refocus their efforts on helping the people at risk.


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