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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Tar Sands: They Won't Be Going to Asia without Keystone XL

Elizabeth Shope

Posted August 18, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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Alberta and its tar sands oil are landlocked, and without more pipelines to transport them to the either Canadian coast or to the U.S. Gulf coast, that is where the dirty, high-carbon fuel source will stay. All too frequently, industry has tried to “play the Asia card” when talking about Keystone XL. They make the false claim that if Keystone XL is not built, tar sands will be extracted and will be sent to Asia instead. This could not be further from the truth—at the moment it is largely impossible; the infrastructure simply does not exist and is not likely to be built any time soon.

How can this be? There aren’t similar pipelines in Canada? The short answer is no. And the only slightly longer answer is that proposals on the books to link Alberta tar sands operations to the British Columbia coast are facing even bigger hurdles than Keystone XL. The pipeline that thousands are in DC to protest is far more likely to open the Asian markets that Big Oil desperately craves to export what many call “the dirtiest oil on the planet.”

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, and its associated tanker traffic through sensitive British Columbia Coastal waters, faces tremendous opposition – especially by First Nation groups, who have the legal authority to block a pipeline that traverses their lands and waters. Their resistance has been fierce and continuous – the following are just some select examples of their opposition and is not a complete list:

  • On March 23, 2010, British Columbia First Nations of the Central and North Pacific Coast issued a declaration banning tar sands crude oil tanker traffic from traveling through their territories. West Coast Environmental Law’s Legal Comment on Coastal First Nations Declaration explains that “Coastal First Nations have the right to issue a ban on crude oil tankers in their waters, based in their own ancestral laws, in Canadian constitutional law, and in international law” and that they can “take steps to enforce their declaration under their own laws, through the Canadian courts, and/or through legal action at the international level.”
  • On December 2, 2010, a group of 61 First Nations whose lands and waters would be threatened or traversed by the Northern Gateway Pipeline released the Save the Fraser declaration, which includes the following text: “Therefore, in upholding our ancestral laws, Title, Rights and responsibilities, we declare: We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.”
  • Also in December 2010, a group of First Nations publicly rejected a 10% equity stake in the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. This would be a LOT of money for the First Nations and is a strong indication that they are not going to be bought.
  • In May this year, a group of First Nations people protested outside the Enbridge shareholder meeting in Calgary.
  • Last month, 35 Dene chiefs  came out publicly opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.

The Northern Gateway Pipeline is far from a done deal. Other proposed pipeline projects to either coast of Canada are further behind and will face equal if not greater opposition as they move through their permit decision processes. Some have postulated that the Gateway Pipeline doesn’t even make economic sense for Asia, which currently does not have the capacity to refine large quantities of bitumen from the tar sands – and that the main reason for the proposal is to put pressure on the State Department to approve Keystone XL.

Keystone XL may be industry’s first shot at accessing a global market for tar sands. There is no mechanism in place to keep the oil in the U.S. and we are now an overall exporter of finished petroleum products. So, after putting landowners like Randy Thompson and David Daniel at risk, and after being processed by community-polluting refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, oil companies will be able to ship the tar sands that is sent through Keystone XL just about anywhere in the world.

The State Department has said that they plan to issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement this month for Keystone XL, which will trigger the beginning of the 90-day “National Interest Determination” period. It looks like this National Interest Determination period will begin during two weeks of daily sit-ins in front of the White House – organized by Bill McKibben – designed to show President Obama that Keystone XL is not in the national interest. The protesters should be asking this question of everyone who they speak with: “In whose interest would this pipeline be built?” It seems to me that landowners and farmers get to risk their lands – while oil men in Canada reap the profit of selling their particularly climate-changing product to markets in China and India. That doesn’t sound like energy security to me…more like profit security and climate insecurity. Say no to Keystone XL at www.stoptar.org.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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