Keystone XL and the Enormous Pollution of Oil Sands Development

In John Kerry’s first major speech as secretary of state he mentioned the need to get tough on climate change. Implied in this was a challenge to Canada’s oilsands track record and the looming Keystone XL decision that will be made this spring. The pipeline was previously rejected because of concerns about its impact on an ecologically sensitive aquifer in Nebraska—it has since been rerouted to avoid the aquifer and is back up for federal approval. Late on Friday, the State Department gave preliminary environmental go-ahead, though the final decision has several more stages and is not expected until late 2013.

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada a town that is a hub of the oilsands and where oil is the pulse of the city. Recent debates over the Keystone XL pipeline have largely focused on the issue of climate change, which has overshadowed other discussions that should be also be taking place. The oilsands and the Keystone XL pipeline have broader environmental implications which only strengthen the case against it. A report released in August 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences reported that levels of mercury, thallium and other toxins are higher in snowpacks and waterways downstream of oilsands developments. Residents downstream of oilsands operations have expressed concerns over increased cancer rates and abnormalities in fish. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported:

Levels of the pollutants cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life in melted snow or water collected near or downstream from oilsands mining.

The oilsands are a chronic source of pollution and have repeatedly violated Canada’s own environmental regulations. A database of oilsands records revealed:

There are many cases of companies reporting the same violations month after month.

One company reported that its emissions of H2S — so-called “rotten-egg gas” that is toxic even in small amounts — exceeded guidelines for 15 hours in March 2008.

The next month, it exceeded them for 51 hours. The next month, 28 hours.

Another company reported violations of surface water guidelines at least once a month from January to July 2008.

Some of those were minor, such as muddy water being released due to ditch-digging on site. But one month, 5.4 million litres of salty water were mistakenly released into the Athabasca River.

Despite what Alberta Premier Alison Redford claimed in her USA Today oped, Canada’s climate change track record leaves a lot to be desired—and not just because of the oilsands. It results from a repeated policy failure by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to uphold previous emissions reduction commitments and obstructionist behaviour during new international efforts to prevent climate change. Canada’s lackluster environmental policies will continue to exist regardless of what happens with Keystone. The Guardian‘s George Monbiot writes:

After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world’s 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.

Many Canadians were happy that the Obama administration rejected the Keystone XL pipeline making the decision for us. Obama should keep the pressure on Canadian leaders, but he also needs to start a broader dialogue. He needs to ask why America’s biggest oil supplier has such a bad track record on climate change and regulation enforcement, and how we can try and build a more sustainable economy that is less dependent on oil. Canada has a resource economy and we’re not about to turn away from that. Marren Smith writes for Grist:

In 2010, energy accounted for 6.8 percent of Canada’s GDP, with oil and gas contributing roughly half of that amount. This is in large part thanks to you. Even without Keystone XL, we are already your No. 1 supplier of imported petroleum — we more than double Saudi Arabia’s contribution.

Fossil fuels literally keep the lights on in these parts, put bread on the table for hundreds of thousands of us, and provide critical government revenue that we have come to depend on for hospitals, schools, and other social services. But we’re just starting to realize the growing risk and uncertainty associated with this economic model.

We’re not about to stop producing oil in the near term, but we have to be smarter about it. We have to focus more on protecting our environment and diversifying our economy. I hope that John Kerry rejects the Keystone XL pipeline. I also hope that we can consider the oilsands more broadly. Clean drinking water and the unfettered release of carcinogens should enter into this debate far more often. Keystone is just a small battle and we will have to look at much broader policies.

Rhiannon M. Kirkland

Rhiannon M. Kirkland is an intern at the Washington Monthly.