EPA's Critique of Oil Pipeline is a Victory for Sustainable Business

Last month I wrote about environmental concerns surrounding one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions in North America: Canadian tar sands oil extraction. Though the decision to invest in this particularly dirty form of oil was made largely by the Canadian government, there’s never been any doubt where the market forces creating demand for it lie: in the United States. Environmental groups have thus been busy in both the US and Canada, trying to convince governments and major companies to shift their resources from the dirty business of tar sand oil to renewable energy and sustainable business investments. It’s been an uphill battle, but in the last week sustainable business advocates scored a victory that could finally turn the tides against the tar sands.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, vast areas of once-pristine forests and streams are slowly being converted to a giant industrial site, where carbon-intensive methods are used to extract oil from geologic formations not conducive to easy drilling. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s conservative estimates, the energy required to extract tar sand oil means this fuel source has a life cycle carbon footprint at least 85% greater than that of ordinary oil. Once extracted, tar sands oil needs to be shunted by pipeline to the US market, where most of North America’s demand for oil originates. Thus oil companies are trying to create a new network of pipelines to deliver Canadian oil to the US. It’s there that the tar sands project has stalled.

On July 20th, the EPA granted the worst possible rating to the US State Department’s draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. If built, Keystone XL would stretch from the Canadian province of Albert all the way to Texas, slicing through the American Midwest. If an accident resulted in a spill along the pipeline route, toxic oil could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer and the drinking and irrigation water for residents of eight US states. The State department, which oversees part of the permitting process for pipelines that cross national borders, was originally expected to approve Keystone XL easily. Yet in the wake of the BP oil spill, concern over safety issues surrounding this massive piece of oil infrastructure have grown. This appears to be part of the EPA’s reason for criticizing the project.

The EPA is also concerned about the high carbon emissions from tar sands oil, and has asked that environmental security be given more weight in the State department’s analysis. It’s a sign of a growing trend: more and more US policymakers seem to be realizing the tar sands are a dirty and unpopular source of oil, with no place in this country’s clean energy future. John Podesta, a major figure in the campaign to elect Barack Obama, has been especially outspoken against tar sands oil, criticizing the carbon emissions and health threats inherent in the project.

If the State department cannot resolve issues raised by the EPA, the decision over Keystone XL’s approval may be handled directly by the White House. The exact nature of the White House stance on tar sands oil is unclear, but this dirty fuel is quite inconsistent with President Obama’s pledge to create US jobs and reduce carbon emissions by investing in clean energy infrastructure. Allowing this pipeline to break ground would be a serious step backward for North American climate policy and sustainable business in the US and Canada.

Photo credit: Climatico