There are multiple reasons to oppose granting a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline – and one overriding ‘national interest’ criterion. Climate Science Watch submitted the following public comment to the State Department on October 9 on the final environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL Project.

Comment submitted by Rick Piltz, Director, Climate Science Watch, Washington, DC:

Climate Science Watch is on record as opposing a permit for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. I joined climate scientist James Hansen and 141 other individuals arrested on August 29 at one of the series of sit-in demonstrations at the White House, calling on President Obama to deny the permit and block construction.

There are multiple reasons to oppose granting a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline – and one overriding ‘national interest’ criterion.

The multiple reasons include:

(1) The likelihood of difficult-to-remediate spills from the pipeline threatens to degrade and pollute land and water resources and have harmful impacts on human health and wildlife. As Dr. James Hansen put it:

“The environmental impacts of tar sands development include: irreversible effects on biodiversity and the natural environment, reduced water quality, destruction of fragile pristine Boreal Forest and associated wetlands, aquatic and watershed mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, disruption to life cycles of endemic wildlife particularly bird and Caribou migration, fish deformities and negative impacts on the human health in downstream communities.”

In its first year of operation, there have been 14 spills from the existing segment of the Keystone pipeline in the United States. Whistleblower revelations from a former Keystone pipeline construction inspector suggest that the construction process is plagued by shoddiness and corner-cutting that is covered up by contractors, with a general inadequacy of regulatory oversight.

(2) Documented conflicts of interest and crony-lobbyist corruption has characterized the State Department’s handling of the pipeline permitting process. That the Environmental Impact Statement was developed for the State Department by a contractor chosen and paid for by TransCanada itself creates a conflict of interest that should, in itself, be sufficient to halt the permitting process and conduct an environmental assessment that has independence and integrity.

(3) The proposed pipeline and the tar sands oil it would deliver from Canada would not enhance U.S. national security nor protect the United States from oil supply interruptions or price shocks. The only real way to enhance national security vis-à-vis oil is to break the stranglehold of oil over the transportation system, by dramatically reducing demand and developing alternative transportation energy sources. Building new infrastructure to lock the system into producing a major new source of oil supply takes us in the wrong direction.

(4) Proponents of the pipeline have engaged in a predatory relationship with Americans’ insecurity about unemployment to present exaggerated estimates of the job-creating benefits of the pipeline.

All of these points, and others, have been made well by opponents of granting a permit for the pipeline. But one argument, which should be considered central to a ‘national interest’ determination, has perhaps not been given the prominence it calls for: that large-scale development and production from the tar sands would make it difficult, perhaps impossible, to stabilize atmospheric carbon at a level that would potentially avert global climatic disruption and the associated disastrous impacts on society and the habitability of the planet. Dr. Hansen has said:

“The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2). Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels including tar sands are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate.

“Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.”

Before he was inaugurated, President Obama once said to reporters that he believed what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that climate change is “a matter of urgency and of national security” — that “the time for denial and delay are over.” The President knows we are on a dangerous path.

The stress of climatic disruption will be added to societies that are already very stressed – in the United States and worldwide. And people who are already the most vulnerable – and who are least responsible for causing the problem, are likely to be hardest hit by the impacts.

If there were no threat of climatic disruption, then transforming the energy system would be a less urgent challenge. The promise and the advantages of clean energy would still be there – but the potential consequences of climatic disruption are what lends great urgency.

The President must know this. But he has appeared reluctant to give the issue real prominence in his public statements. Apparently he has not yet found it politically convenient to speak truthfully about this and to keep this message in front of the public. With the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, he can begin to rectify this shortcoming in his presidential leadership.

The overriding national interest consideration in this case is the same as the global interest of humanity: that the U.S. Government should not be complicit in, but rather seek to forestall, development of the tar sands. Given this, it is shocking that the State Department appears to be considering the proposed pipeline permit in terms – e.g., will the pipeline leak? – that treat the profound problem of global climatic disruption as though it were irrelevant to practical decisions about the development and use of fossil energy sources. In addition, judging from the evidence of cronyism, conflicts of interest, and apparent pre-judging of the desirable outcome in how the State Department has handled the permitting process, Secretary Clinton appears to be compromised.

Under the circumstances, the appropriate course is for President Obama to step in and make the national interest determination that statesmanship requires: to deny this permit and block the pipeline.

Earlier posts:

McKibben: With the Keystone Pipeline, Drawing a Line in the Tar Sands

Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream”

Letter from scientists calling on Obama to block the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline

Keystone XL pipeline decision a clear test of Obama’s character and commitment on climate change

In support of protest at the White House to call for veto of Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline

“Greening of Canadian Oil Sands: A View Across the Border”

Woodrow Wilson Center panel: “Is the Keystone XL pipeline in the national interest?”