This article was reported and researched by David Barer, an intern at StateImpact Texas.
The 1,700-mile long Keystone XL Pipeline would connect the Alberta oil sand fields in Canada to refineries in Texas. The project has become a hotly-contested issue between environmentalists and big-oil companies. Democrats and Republicans have also wrangled over the pipeline due to the upcoming presidential election.
The Texas leg of the Keystone pipeline would run south from Cushing Oklahoma through East Texas to refineries near Houston and Port Arthur. The company behind the pipeline, TransCanada, has secured the vast majority of easements and land rights to place their pipeline, but several holdouts refuse to allow the pipeline to be built on the property, which has lead to eminent domain disputes.
We recently spoke with David Weinberg, the Executive Director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, to learn more about the Canadian tar sands, the environmental movement’s stance on the project, and hear Weinberg and his political organization’s thoughts on the issue. (To read an opposing perspective on the pipeline, read our interview with Jim Prescott, project representative for the pipeline.)
Q: What concerns you more: the Keystone XL pipeline or the tar sands?
A: Clearly, building the pipeline enables the production of this resource, so they kind of go together. There are concerns about the processing and the production of tar sands in general. The particular pipeline route which was proposed to the State Department got nixed; that raised its own set of environmental concerns based on where it was located in terms of oil spills over the Ogallala Aquifer in the central United States. So, there’s a very serious concern about production of the resource regardless of where it is sent, where it is processed and where that fuel is used.
Q: The Canadian tar sands contains one of the largest oil deposits in the world. Many people believe it will be used regardless of whether America builds a pipeline or not. Do you feel that is an accurate assessment of the situation?
A: I’m not going to speculate on what is ultimately going to happen. I think that it is wrong for people to brush aside the environmental concerns, and say “Well, they’re going to produce it anyway; someone is going to take the oil.” Global warming is an incredibly important issue; environmental degradation is an incredibly important issue. They are too important to take a moral view of two wrongs make a right, or the lesser of two evils is the way to go. This is a one of the dirtiest forms of producing energy known in the world. There are much cleaner ways of producing energy, whether that is other fossil fuels or renewable energy. The decisions we make as human beings in terms of the health of our planet, in terms of water, and how we produce our energy is incredibly important. There are many, many problems associated with producing this tar sands. There are simply objectively better ways to produce energy.
Q: If we don’t produce the tar sands, what is a good alternative for us?
A: The whole keystone pipeline has become a wedge issue. It has almost become a metaphor instead of a real thing in terms of energy and jobs. People in favor of the pipeline are saying, “If we don’t build this pipeline we are not going to have energy jobs.” I’m not making any value judgments on the production of fossil fuel production going on in the states right now other than to say there is a lot of it going on. The idea that we are not producing energy in the United States, that we need to make this pipeline to do that, is just false. It’s misleading. I just want to make that clear. It’s not like, if we don’t have the Keystone pipeline we are not using energy and we will not produce energy. Clearly, in terms of energy production, we could be doing a lot more in terms of renewable energy. We’ve made some progress in the United States on wind power, a little less on solar, but there is still so much more we could do in terms of wind power, solar power, geothermal power. I think the EPA says a barrel of oil produced in the United States has about 82 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of this Canadian tar sands oil. That is a very big number and a very important figure.
Q: So are these tar sands the worst type of oil to produce?
A: I think the tar sands production, and Canada is not the only place in the world that has tar sands or heavy crude, but I think that short of burning tires it’s about the dirtiest form of energy that you can produce. With the Canadian tar sands it’s not just all the air toxins and the greenhouse gases. You are going backwards for a number of reasons. You are destroying Boreal forest, which is a very important carbon sink in the world. If you have spills you could be doing great damage to ecosystems, to aquifers.
Q: Has the fact that this issue, the Keystone XL Pipeline, has become a political football helped or hurt the environmentalists stake in this fight?
A: So, to say that you are going out and you are fighting for the Keystone pipeline, you are really being very transparent about what you’re doing. You’re actually going out and cheerleading for a corporation, for a Canadian corporation, to make a lot of money, because it’s not even the only company that could be doing this. The environmental movement in America has fought very hard on this thing. And, like any movement or any campaign, you want to win, and by blocking this project at least temporarily that is a success and that is a good thing. I’m not going to lie to you, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done by the environmental movement: messaging and to tell the story on clean energy issues.
Q: The tar sands are nothing new and neither is the Keystone XL pipeline, so why has there been this media blitz and uproar in the past few months?
A: I’m with the League of Conservation Voters and what we do is we do a lot of the political work in the environmental movement. The oil business is a hyper-profitable thing. There is a Canadian company wanting to make billions on this project and money talks in American politics. So they’ve spent millions of dollars on advertising, on PR firms, on lobbyists, and they’re chomping at the bit to get this thing done. There is this very big push from their end and they have people like Mitch McConnell of the United States Senate who has taken a ton of money from those guys. It’s a big deal for industry to make money off this. The environmental movement spearheaded by Bill McKibben has, because this is such a big deal for the environment, made this an important cause and have fought hard on it and built it up.
Q: As a Texas organization here, what are the aspects of the pipeline you oppose in Texas?
A: If you want to look at Texas in particular there are folks out in East Texas who are certainly concerned at the eminent domain abuse and private property rights, in terms of where this pipeline is built on their property. In Texas also, we have a choice to make. We can choose to support this dirty energy project that benefits a Canadian corporation, that doesn’t use U.S. steel, that doesn’t produce oil for the United States. Or, here in Texas, we’ve had some pretty good stories about production of wind power and natural gas, but there is much more that we can do in terms of expanding wind power, and our use of solar power and other forms of renewable energy.