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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Keystone Pipeline Decision Delayed

Air Date: Week of

Protesters surround the white house to protest the Keystone pipeline. (Photo: Tar Sands Action)

The White House has decided to put off making a decision on expanding the Keystone XL Pipeline until after the 2012 elections. The decision was hailed as a victory by opponents to the tar sands pipeline. National Wildlife Federation Senior Vice President Jeremy Symons tells host Bruce Gellerman that the delay could mean the demise of the Keystone project.


GELLERMAN: It may not be exactly the decision King Solomon would have made, but President Obama has finally come to a decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He’s decided to put off a decision pending a review of route the seven billion dollar pipeline would take. The current plans call for the pipeline to carry crude from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada over the nation’s largest aquifer and delicate wetlands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Proponents say we need the jobs and oil but environmentalists hate it. Now, the issue won’t be decided until after the presidential election. Joining me from his office in Washington, DC is Jeremy Symons, Senior Vice President at the National Wild Life Federation. Hi, Mr. Symons. Welcome to Living on Earth.

SYMONS: Thanks for having me on the show.

GELLERMAN: So, what do you make of the Obama administration's decision to delay the final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline?

SYMONS: Well, this is a big turning point. There’s been opposition to this pipeline building over the last two years, and it was really not getting the attention it deserved. But enough people weighed in and the president paid attention, and now we’re finally getting the right process that this big decision on our energy future deserves.

This map shows the three main oil sands in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Norman Einstein, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: But there’s no decision, really. Basically, what he’s done is kicked the can down the road. He’s decided not to decide at least for, well, after the election.

SYMONS: Yeah, he kicked the can, but this was a dirty can. I mean, this was all set to be approved and rubber-stamped from the very beginning. And so, we’re actually quite heartened that this project is going to get a do-over. We don’t think it can stand up to the public scrutiny at the end of the day because, fundamentally, Americans just don’t want an addiction for 30, 40, 50 years to dirty, dangerous tar sands from Canada.

GELLERMAN: I’m reading between the lines of this announcement, and it seems like they’re talking about not killing it, but rerouting it so that it doesn’t harm, you know, the wetlands in the Sand Hills and it doesn’t hurt the aquifer.

SYMONS: Well, this pipeline was bad in so many ways. It was the wrong project in the wrong place, and it was the wrong place because the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer is a source of drinking water and irrigation for so much of America’s agricultural heartland. But, you know, you can change the place, but it’s still the wrong project. It still comes down to whether or not anybody anywhere should deal with spills from this tar sands pipeline.

And even the State Department, if you read between the lines of their analysis, said you’re looking at one to two major spills every single year from this pipeline, and it could be up to two million gallons of tar sands sludge, which is particularly toxic. It’s not like conventional oil; this stuff is really nasty.

GELLERMAN: Would you be satisfied with any rerouting of the pipeline?

SYMONS: Well, certainly not with the safety standards they have now. One of the big issues that we’ve been raising at National Wildlife Federation from the beginning is that there’s never been an assessment of the safety risk of tar sands pipelines. We saw a huge spill on the Kalamazoo River last year of almost a million gallons. It still hasn’t been cleaned up, and EPA says that tar sands is so toxic, it’s so difficult to clean up because of the nature - it sinks to the bottom, it’s heavy - they don’t know what to do with it.

So, the first thing we need is we need to look at all tar sands that are starting to be pumped through pipelines with old safety standards and get a full fledged evaluation and new safety standards put in place because, until we do that, this stuff can’t be transported safely at all.

GELLERMAN: Well, there are people who say even if there are no spills, it’s still no the right project, on any planet, because basically, according to NASA scientist James Hanson, if we burn this oil, it’s game over for the planet.

SYMONS: That’s the key thing in building a pipeline. When you build a pipeline, you’re not deciding where you’re going to get your oil tomorrow or the next year or even five years down the road. You’re really deciding where our kids are going to get their oil way down the road. And, when you look at tar sands development, you’re looking at a huge store of carbon up in Canada, and if we start burning that, it causes far more pollution than even conventional oil. We need to be moving the other direction. We need to be moving to American renewable energy sources that don’t spill, that don’t pollute and that don’t run out.

GELLERMAN: It would be amazing if the decision were to kill the pipeline, because that would mean that the United States wasn’t going to tap into the world’s second largest proven reserves of oil.

SYMONS: You know, that’s a false choice though, because at the end of the day, we know one thing for sure - we know that our addiction to oil is at a dead end. It’s not whether we draw a line in the sand. It’s whether the nation stands up and draws a line in the sand and says, “We’re going to take clean energy seriously, and we want to put our dollars behind it.”

GELLERMAN: So, you think opponents to the pipeline are going to sign onto this? Because we spoke to many opponents, Bill McKibben, for one, and he said, you know, this is the line in the tar sands. If the president doesn’t do what we think he should do, we may withhold our active support.

SYMONS: I think the equation is the other way in this case. The real question is whether Washington responds when people get roused to the point that they did here. We saw hundreds of thousands of comments, we saw people marching in front of the White House, even people being arrested in front of the White House, but importantly, we saw thousands of people gathering at town halls along the pipeline route.

I think there’s a new awareness here, and I think politicians on both sides of the aisle, and whether they’re in the White House or in Congress or in state houses, need to really pay attention that Americans expect and deserve a better energy future than this type of investment represents.

GELLERMAN: When you heard the news were you celebrating?

SYMONS: Yeah, we’re excited today. I mean, there’s no question about it, because there were days in this fight where it’s been a really long haul. I mean, I’ve talked to people on both sides of the border - in Canada and in the United States - that have been really trampled in this process, and I think the judgment is going to come out right on this because it’s hard to imagine that we would come out any other way.

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Symons is Senior Vice President for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, DC. Mr. Symons, thank you very much.

SYMONS: Thanks for having me on the show!



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