Tuesday, November 1, 2011

One form of human development that can have a significant impact on biodiversity is the construction of oil pipelines. One example that has particular pertinence today is the Keystone XL project. This project was proposed in 2008 by TransCanada Corporation, as an extension of the original Keystone Pipeline, which runs from Hardisty, Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma. The Keystone XL would start near the original site in Hardisty and is intended to reach refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project is still being reviewed for permission to proceed, but the Obama administration came out with a statement supporting the development of the pipeline earlier this year. There are, of course, many factors that come into play when trying to assess the impact of such a pipeline. Many people find the Keystone XL an appealing development in the U.S. oil industry, because it would drastically reduce our foreign oil dependence. Even better, it would reduce the “carbon footprint” of the country’s oil consumption, because foreign oil must be shipped overseas in large tankers, which is one of the biggest contributing factors to our energy consumption footprint. A pipeline requires much less energy to operate and maintain.

The possible environmental impacts are still considerable. Deforestation resulting from the development of the Hardisty area would claim over 740,000 acres of virgin boreal forest. The construction of the pipeline itself would also cause deforestation and fragmentation in the six states it would traverse. There is also evidence that the pipeline could inhibit wildlife migration patterns and gene flow. However, the greatest fear on everyone’s mind is the impact a spill would have. The Keystone XL would cross the Nebraskan Sandhills, a large and valuable wetland ecosystem, and perhaps more importantly, the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest freshwater reserve in the country. Although a spill is highly unlikely, it could devastate the country’s biggest source of water and damage untold ecosystems along the way. The fact that the pipeline would cross a moderately active earthquake zone is not comforting. And with the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the concept of immense-scale ecological devastation is not far from anyone’s mind.

Personally, the biggest argument I have against the development of the Keystone XL is not that it would be particularly devastating to the environment, but that it would employ a huge number of resources to go in a direction our country doesn’t want. I don’t think the pipeline itself would have a large environmental impact, but the time, energy, resources, and manpower it would take to build could be spent implementing cleaner energy. We know we have the technology to make it work. All we have to do is take the final step and start actually incorporating green energy into our energy industry. It would probably be easier to increase our sustainable energy consumption to 10% than it would to construct a pipeline across the entire continent.

Posted by Kai Atkinson

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