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Keystone pipeline is a mistake, just like the tar sands oil it would carry

  • Author: David Otness
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published February 4, 2015

Having seen former Attorney General John Havelock, former Anchorage Mayor George Weurch and former Commerce Commissioner Paul Fuhs conclude the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico is a good thing, it was refreshing to read Kate Troll's opinion in opposition. I'll side with her for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the extensive hard look I've had over half a decade of researching the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, the ones most proponents prefer to euphemistically brand as "oil sands." Yet they remain extremely poisonous tarry bitumen, needing natural gas byproducts called diluents to even begin to facilitate their shipment via pipeline. Think asphalt.

This even after a natural gas-fired melting and straining to get the semi-liquid goo to even move within a given steel tube, which is then subject to extremely acidic and corrosive scouring much more than any other raw crude oil product shipped. Much of the Keystone pipe, likely from India, is designated to be less than 1/2-inch wall thickness. The trans-Alaska pipeline is 5/8th of an inch. Canada has a horrible pipeline safety record. Horrible.

Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has thoroughly gutted its environmental laws in large part to facilitate the expansion of tar sands exploitation, as if the devastation of North Alberta were not already assured and manifestly evident by the hundreds of square miles already resembling Mordor from the "Lord of the Rings" movies. Promises to bioremediate these vast toxic dregs remain largely and predominately unfulfilled as the plundering of the northern boreal forest relentlessly proceeds. The scale is truly enormous. Harper's solution has been to make the airspace above a no-fly zone. Tell that to the migrating waterfowl which use the area as a flyway. In one incident a few years back over 1,500 ducks died within hours of landing on one of the tailings ponds. Propane "sound" cannons are employed to keep the birds at bay. Just what a tired duck needs.

In our species' relentless and seemingly insatiable craving for petroleum, I have concluded we have reached an apparent human nadir with the full-tilt "development" occurring in Alberta. That we are willing to heedlessly gouge out an area the size of Ireland or Florida and then walk away from it with an "out of sight, out of mind" collective wisdom shows us for what we really are -- not very wise at all. Indeed we are more the mendicant for it in the sense of a perhaps fatal human flaw -- our inability to consider the negative consequences of our actions until it is too late.

The human victims cannot be overlooked either. In 2006, Dr. John O'Connor, a traveling physician in Canada's northern Bush found in Fort Chipewyan, downstream from the tar sands' processing operations, exceptionally high incidences of cancers in the Mikisew Cree residents: "The cancers are sort of one extreme — blood and lymphatic cancer, thyroid cancer, central nervous system cancer and bile duct, biliary tract cancer ... I saw a lot of auto-immune diseases, like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, a lot of skin disorders, gastro-intestinal disorders of various types, just a lot. Taken as a whole in the population that was only 850 — it was just phenomenal. It didn't make any sense."

For his efforts, the Harper government put him under sanctions, impugned his reputation and has been scurrying ever since to cover up the facts that leaking tailing ponds have been polluting the Athabasca River for decades now. Dr. O'Connor goes on to state: "A number of people in the community work in industry, so they fly in and out from Fort Chip. But there's also been a reliance — 80 percent of the community survives off the land, hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. I think that number is diminished now. Fishing is gone. There was a commercial fishery there for years, for a month and a half each year, and that has died off. I know some of the elders now, they won't eat the fish, unfortunately. One elder told me that the only fish he eats now is tuna he buys at the supermarket ... There's been a push away from traditional foods for a large chunk of the population, because the foods are so tainted." That includes moose and caribou.

But it doesn't end here. The Athabasca River flows into Great Slave Lake and from there into the MacKenzie River and out into the Arctic Ocean near the Alaska-Canada border.

This is what the Keystone XL product does already just in extraction and processing, not including the toxins spewed into the atmosphere for miles around. From their tar sands holdings -- at last year's prices -- Koch Industries expects $100 billion in profits if Keystone XL is built. The polluted air in Houston and the Texas Gulf coast is not going to profit at all. And, once refined, there remain huge tailing piles of residue much like coal clinkers whose dust blows into the air further polluting surrounding residential areas. Or will they barge it out into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, "out of sight, out of mind?"

I'm with Paul Fuhs in not wanting this stuff shipped out of Kitimat, British Columbia, (over 200 voyages per year) where outbound tankers will come within a few scant miles of Cape Muzon on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island in perilous Dixon Entrance and also transiting Unimak Pass in the Aleutians. A spill in Canadian waters is going to drift northward and even worse than Michigan's Kalamazoo River million-gallon spill in 2010 (yet to be cleaned up), there will be very little recovery as so much of the bitumen separates and sinks. There's that "out of sight, out of mind" thing again. However, there will be plenty of natural gas liquids diluent to remain floating. Fortunately First Nations tribes and British Columbia citizens groups have held firm and resolute in opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Alaskans have been awfully silent to the threat.

The Alberta tar sands are a travesty from beginning to end and nothing, not even an industry PR firm such as Canada's so-called Ethical Oil or the wretched Fraser Institute will change that fact. We are a craven species for perpetrating such wanton desecration of the one planet which holds our fragile existence in such delicate balance.

Can we, or will we grow up in time to say,"That's enough. No more?"

David Otness is a lifelong Alaskan who has worked as a commercial fisherman, merchant mariner, mariculture proponent and has been in the timber and construction businesses. He describes himself now as a "loud and proud environmentalist. And a perennial political thorn to those most deserving." He lives in Cordova.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

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