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Into the pipeline

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 31, 2011

Despite the fact that it could have major impact on global warming, and despite the fact that it is inspiring large-scale acts of civil disobedience among climate scientists and environmental activists, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project isn't getting the attention it deserves.

The pipeline would stretch 1700 miles from Canada's so-called "tar sands" to the Texas Gulf Coast. Tar sands, also known as oil sands, are naturally occurring mixtures of sand, water, and bitumen, which is a heavy, viscous form of oil (hence the association with sticky tar). Extraction of oil from such sands creates more greenhouse gases than conventional oil drilling, scientists say.

Canada is firmly on board with tar-sands extraction, but President Obama could still approve or deny the pipeline. Hundreds of tar-sands protesters have been arrested outside the White House in recent weeks; inside the administration, the obstacles are fewer.

We talked to Glenn Hurowitz, of the Washington, DC-based consulting firm Climate Advisors, about the pros and cons (he focused on the latter) of tapping into the tar sands. He was one of the 149 protesters arrested on Monday in DC. Read the full interview at

WHAT IS YOUR POSITION ON THE KEYSTONE OIL PIPELINE? The Keystone XL pipeline would set off a giant North American carbon bomb. The tar sands hold billions of tons of carbon dioxide, one of the world's greatest stores of carbon. As a result, tar sands are one of the few things that makes regular old dirty oil look green in comparison. Because tar sands oil is locked up in an extremely viscous form, it requires a huge amount of energy to transform into something you can use in a car, and that means significantly more greenhouse gas emissions.

WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE STATE DEPARTMENT'S REPORT THAT THE PROPOSED WOULD HAVE "NO SIGNIFICANT IMPACT" ON THE ENVIRONMENT? The State Department's Environmental Impact Statement is quite shocking: it recalls the worst days of the Bush administration's ignoring science in order to do the oil industry's bidding . . . Although the analysis acknowledges that tar sands includes greater greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil, it presumes that if the pipeline isn't built, the tar sands oil will be burned anyway because it will be transported to other markets. To put it mildly, this flies in the face of what the Canadian oil industry itself is saying.

WHAT ROLE WILL PRESIDENT OBAMA PLAY IN THIS ISSUE? President Obama has not yet weighed in on the issue, and the final decision is in his hands. This isn't one of those actions he can blame on Congress. He has the sole authority to approve or reject the pipeline. This is his opportunity to show he's really serious about the climate crisis and to start to fulfill his promise that in his presidency "the rise of the oceans would begin to slow" and the "planet (would) begin to heal." . . . Overall, this decision is an opportunity for Obama to begin to repair a pretty disastrous environmental record when it comes to fossil fuels. Stopping the tar sands would at least show that he's willing to stand up the oil companies for once. . . . Some late-breaking good news: I'm told by an administration source that the protests are getting traction inside the White House.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , environment, Glenn Hurowitz, Going green,  More more >
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