As a scientist and teacher of human ecology, I am fully aware of the dangers surrounding the extraction of oil from tar sands. It’s a dirty, costly, and environmentally destructive process. Getting to the oil, called bitumen, takes either strip-mining or melting it underground by steam heat for several months and pumping it up and out. This wastes huge amounts of natural gas and water from rivers and underground aquifers.
TransCanada has been extracting tar sand oil from an area of the Boreal forest and wetlands about the size of Florida and ruining its once pristine environment. It now has over 65 square miles of tailings ponds due to tar sands oil production. We in Eastern Kentucky know what tailings ponds can do to a local environment: kill fish and vegetation and leach into the groundwater, tainting private well water and nearby rivers for years.
The Keystone XL project proposes to transport the tar sand oil being produced at such great environmental cost from Canada, through five of our agricultural states (Montana, S Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas), to the Gulf Coast for refinement. Tar sands oil refining causes much more atmospheric pollution than conventional crude, and many refineries that will be doing the job are located in areas that don’t even meet EPA air quality standards!.
Additionally, the potential for accidents and seepages from a pipeline that long is considerable. The Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest aquifer, would lie in its path. This is the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 3o percent of our nation’s irrigation groundwater. It is already at risk of being depleted in the next few decades, because of global warming, so one accidental oil leakage from the pipeline could be catastrophic.
The Keystone XL pipeline proposal is currently under review by the State Department, and the deadline for public comment is April 22. If you have concerns about this project, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them. After weighing both the Review and public comments, President Obama will make the final decision. Let us hope it’s a wise one.
John G. Shiber, PhD
Professor of Biology
Big Sandy Community & Technical College