The Keystone XL pipeline is a veritable grab-bag of controversial issues, but with so much debate over energy security, jobs, and politics, the most urgent problems of tar sands development are put on the back burner. For those of us who work on wildlife issues, however, the crisis couldn’t be clearer: Wildlife from Canada to the Gulf coast of Texas and beyond face a true calamity if Keystone XL is built.
Let’s start with our neighbors. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, told reporters last year that “certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America,” ignoring widespread criticism—north of the border—of his administration’s slash and burn approach to environmental policy. The Canadian government has been the tar sands industry’s biggest cheerleader, helping to prioritize oil development at the cost of, well, almost everything green: they have withdrawn from the Kyoto protocol, neutered the country’s bedrock environmental laws, muzzled federal climate scientists with media “gag orders” and drastically cut funding for climate research and other crucial environmental programs.
In northern Alberta, the epicenter of the tar sands region, the net result of these decisions is a failed ecosystem, a landscape better suited for dirt bike racing than supporting its native woodland caribou and gray wolves (in fact, in a recent grisly attempt at “wildlife management,” the government sanctioned the slaughter of hundreds of wolves by poisoning and aerial shootings). An area the size of Florida is slated for development, and if you’ve seen the industrial war zone that is a tar sands mine, replete with hundred-acre toxic waste pits, clear-cut forests, and massive refining and upgrading complexes, you know there’s no room for nature.
In a desert this might just be the cost of doing business, but this region happens to overlap some of the most pristine forest in the world, critical habitat for hundreds of species from lynx to moose, as well as the nesting grounds for half of America’s migratory songbirds. Fish and indigenous communities along the Athabasca River, where the mining takes place, are suffering health problems from chemicals released into the watershed.
Moving south along the pathway of Keystone XL, we cross Montana’s Yellowstone River, the prairies of South Dakota, the Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer – America’s most important source of groundwater. The migration corridor for the sandhill crane and the critically endangered whooping crane track the pipeline route step for step, and a spill in Nebraska’s Platte River (which is a crucial pit stop for these iconic birds) would have disastrous consequences. As we’ve seen with the Kalamazoo and Mayflower tar sands pipeline ruptures, when it comes to leaks it’s a matter of when, not if—a fact Keystone’s engineers admitted in filings with the US government. Animals from the flashy (the bald eagle) to the humble (the sagebrush vole) face the prospects of disrupted habitat during construction and operation, and the consequences of Keystone’s inevitable spills.
And then there’s the elephant in the room—climate change. Keystone XL would provide the industry with the one thing it lacks: access to the international oil market. Building Keystone would spur a massive mining expansion and lock us into a fossil fuel economy for decades to come, sending our planet over the edge of climate catastrophe, destroying ecosystems and wiping out wildlife on every continent and ocean. At its core, this project poses a simple choice between values. ExxonMobil and TransCanada have their bottom lines to prop up, but the rest of us need to decide whether corporate profits are worth sending Earth down the toilet.
The State Department’s review of this dangerous and polluting project does not adequately address spill risks, habitat impacts in Canada, or climate threats. The public has until April 22nd to submit official comments, so make sure to do your part for wildlife and tell President Obama to say “NO!” to Keystone XL.