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What’s key about the Keystone oil pipeline

“We’re going to do everything we can to try to make sure that this Keystone pipeline is, in fact, approved. It’s 20,000 direct jobs. It’s over 100,000 indirect jobs.” – Speaker of the House John Boehner

“If Canada proceeds (to build the pipeline), and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” – James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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In summer 2011, the distinguished American climate scientist James Hansen and more than 1,000 others were arrested in front of the White House for acts of peaceful civil disobedience while protesting the proposed construction of the “Keystone” oil pipeline.

That fall, Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s assertion that building the pipeline would create 20,000 new “direct” jobs was challenged by the State Department which put the figure at 5,000 to 6,000 temporary jobs. Boehner’s considerable personal investments in companies that would profit from the pipeline’s construction subsequently appeared in the press.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which was responsible for approving the pipeline because it crosses an international border, was caught up in a series of conflict-of-interest scandals. The department’s environmental review of the project was conducted by a firm that also works for TransCanada, the company that proposes to build the pipeline; further investigation exposed a complex web of financial and political ties between TransCanada, Clinton staffers, President Barack Obama and other Washington high rollers.

The Environmental Protection Agency slammed the State Department’s environmental review as woefully inadequate. With an election-year scandal brewing and sensing strong opposition to the pipeline from environmental activists in his base, Obama put the decision to approve or reject the project on hold in January 2012. The final decision should be made in April.

Watching Washington can be fun. I could regale you with many more disreputable details of the corporate and political insiders’ games surrounding the pipeline controversy. But it’s time to talk about what’s really at stake here.

If built, the 1,750-mile Keystone pipeline would bring “tar sand oil” from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries bordering the Gulf of Mexico. There it would be refined and sold on the world market.

The “oil” is not found in liquid form, but is impregnated in sandstone that is strip-mined from the Earth beneath peat bogs, atmospheric carbon sinks which stretch across a vast area of Alberta. The mined composites are then sent to local plants where the “oil” – which is actually bitumen, the highly viscous “asphalt” used for paving roads – is extracted by an energy-intensive process that releases copious quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The bitumen would then be shipped under high pressure through TransCanada’s proposed pipeline, which crosses numerous rivers and remote and environmentally sensitive areas of several states. Once refined and burned in power plants, tar sands oil puts about 30 percent more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than conventional oil.

So there are plenty of serious environmental concerns about the Keystone project before we even get to the really big concern – the reason thousands of people are now willing to be arrested to stop the pipeline.

Climate activist Bill McKibben has called the pipeline the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” This is part hyperbole and part truth. The hyperbole is that there is plenty of other carbon, most of it in the form of coal, that can be burned.

The truth is that Alberta’s huge tar oil reserves are among the most accessible sources of fossil fuel on the planet. If most of it is burned, which could happen rather quickly if the pipeline is built, we will no longer have any chance of staying below the internationally agreed-upon targets for carbon dioxide concentrations that would allow us to “avoid dangerous climate change” – Hansen’s “game over.”

Last week, thousands of Americans gathered in Washington and marched to the White House to demand that the Keystone pipeline never be built. In honor of the occasion, the Sierra Club endorsed civil disobedience as an environmental defense strategy for the first time in its 120-year history. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune was arrested, along with celebrities and environmental activists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Julian Bond, McKibben and Hansen.

John Kerry, the new secretary of state, has been outspoken on climate issues, saying in a 2012 Senate speech, “Climate change is one of two or three of the most serious threats our country now faces, if not the most serious.” The pipeline approval decision is his to make.

Not everyone who wants to was able to go to D.C. to protest the pipeline. But there are many ways to communicate. Perhaps some input from concerned citizens will encourage Kerry to draw a line in the tar sands at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via e-mail through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.