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Tar Sands Infrastructure in Your Neighborhood: Local stories with global impacts

Josh Mogerman

Posted July 19, 2010

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All news is local. But we tend to downplay local news to our own detriment.

That has become clear as I’ve talked to a bunch of folks lately concerned about a bevy of seemingly unrelated issues in their home towns. Giant trucks in mountain passes. Refineries dumping slop in their lake. People submitting comments to their state government with concerns about that big pipe that is slated to run through their property. Towns split in half over plans to build a refinery in the middle of productive farmland.

The issues seem disperate. They seem less important outside of places like Missoula or Union County or Bloomington.

They are not.

And the they all add up to one giant, under-reported national story. There’s a creeping web of infrastructure that has gradually, quietly been put in place, priming the U.S. to make a shift over from conventional oil towards the high-carbon, highly polluting tar sands oil. 

Some fights have been waged, but mostly, they have been low-profile local fights – pushing back against additional refinery pollution from the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana; a farmer speaking out in a local newspaper in Nebraska about land being put at risk by the proposed massive Keystone XL pipeline; a landowner near Bloomington, IL concerned about how the pipeline company Enbridge threatened to use eminent domain to force their way onto his property;  folks raising their voices about a proposal to expand roads and increase traffic in the picturesque Lolo Pass and other areas in Montana and Idaho to bring massive tar sands extraction equipment produced in South Korea all the way up to Alberta.

They all add up to a serious national issue that has not been treated as such. A fundamental shift in our energy sector that you and I have had little or no say in. Finally, though, these questions about tar sands, tar sands infrastructure, and the energy future of our country are beginning to get the treatment they deserve. Americans are starting to understand what has quietly been going on around them, and they are rejecting it.

A series of recent letters and communications from members of the House and Senate, and members of the business, investment and environmental community are signals of the heightened awareness and concern about these important energy decisions, and specifically the decision that the State Department must make about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. 

These are just a few examples of the heightened activity that has been occurring as people realize that these decisions about tar sands infrastructure are not simply a series of local decisions with local consequences, but rather major decisions with global consquences. It should not be surprising that there is pushback against a massive pipeline carrying dirty, high-carbon oil nearly 2000 miles from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast – through six states and an array of sensitive water sources. After all, a major spill in the Ogallala aquifer, through which the pipeline runs, could contaminate the water used to irrigate a third of our nation’s agricultural lands. 

The Gulf spill has graphically shown Americans that we cannot just accept Big Oil’s assertions that infrastructure is solid, safe, and dependable. This realization is in part why we are seeing pushback now. This is why there are questions about the steel that was used in the Keystone Pipeline, which recently began delivering tar sands oil to the Midwest, and why there are questions about the steel that TransCanada is planning to use in Keystone XL.

At the point where Americans clearly want to shift towards clean energy, this is an effort to tie us to dirty energy – it seems to me that this is the exact wrong project at the exact wrong time. No matter where the story is told, the impacts are not local, they are global.

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