Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

A greener Washington? Not in the pipeline

A greener Washington? Not in the pipeline
Aug 29, 2009

Southern Ontario's smog days will be even dirtier thanks to a decision by the U.S. State Department on behalf of President Barack Obama.

It has granted a presidential permit for construction of the U.S. portion of an Enbridge Inc. pipeline to carry oil – initially, 450,000 barrels a day and eventually, 800,000 barrels – from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in the U.S. Midwest, as near us as Detroit.

As a result, the refineries – some to be expanded – will spew more toxic air pollution. Additional contaminants will flow our way, especially on hot, hazy days, when the wind invariably blows from the southwest. We'll get more greenhouse gases, too.

Although it's uncertain how much the toxins will worsen the toll of illness and death already caused by bad air, the decision is sadly significant.

It has, for one thing, deflated environmentalists' hopes Obama would live up to his rhetoric about the need to curb climate change and restrict dirty oil imports.

The President proposed a weak climate change plan and then accepted further watering down. The pipeline permit confirms his "new" Washington is pretty much the old, at least where the environment is concerned.

Construction of the Canadian section of the $3.6-billion (U.S.), 1,600-kilometre project, the "Alberta Clipper," is well under way. American crews have begun clearing the right-of-way and transporting equipment for their segment. But environmental and aboriginal groups promise court challenges.

The Clipper and two other pipelines – one already approved, the other undergoing an environmental review – are crucial for plans to massively expand tar sands production. The Canadian and Alberta governments, along with the oil industry, would be unhappy if that's curtailed.

For the Americans, the pipeline "will advance a number of strategic interests," the State Department says. These include "increasing the diversity of available supplies ... in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil-producing countries and regions." Canada is, "a stable and reliable ally and trading partner."

The department's analysis, based on scant evidence, concludes the environmental impacts will be trivial: At 450,000 barrels per day, it estimates, the increased refinery emissions would amount to 907 tonnes of carbon monoxide and 362 of volatile organic compounds annually – a drop in North America's pollution ocean. It also contends there's "no indication" the refineries' "negligible" greenhouse emissions "would significantly contribute to climate change."

Set aside the fact that the department's pollution estimates are likely wildly understated and that it ignores the greenhouse emissions from rapidly expanding tar sands operations. The main message is that, despite so many assurances we live in a different, greener world, it's business as usual.

We continue the time-honoured practice of assessing polluting projects one at a time. Each, on its own, won't have a massive impact. Adding them up produces a much bleaker answer we'd rather not deal with.

The permit doesn't attempt to impose environmental conditions on tar sands production. It accepts multi-billion-dollar investments that foreclose on other options.

And the department refused to consider the possibility things might be done differently. During public consultations – the now-obligatory rituals that hear, then dismiss, significant critics – the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy contended: "It would be unreasonable ... to ignore the very likely, indeed certain, regulation of carbon emissions and the effect such regulation will have on the purported purpose and need for this project."

We can argue about how effective new measures might be, but the department simply brushed aside their possibility. It won't, it said, "address potential future legislation, potential future regulations, or potential future policies."

So, full speed ahead, blinkers firmly on. When nudge comes to shove, short-term gain still trumps longer-term environmental and economic concerns, and benefits.

Peter Gorrie is the Star's former environment reporter. He can be reached at: pgorrie@sympatico.ca


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