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September-October 2011

Vol. 35, No. 5

Keystone XL pipeline decision point

At a time when the world faces peak oil – the point at which oil supplies begin to decline – decision makers are in denial about switching wholeheartedly to alternative sources of fuel. This denial is highlighted by the decision that President Obama must make this fall about whether or not to approve the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands across six U.S. states to oil refineries in Texas gulf.

In Canada, giant oil corporations are turning huge tracts of Canada's pristine boreal forest (one of the few large, intact ecosystems on Earth) into a wasteland leaving open pit mines, smoke stacks and toxic lagoons through a process of high carbon fuel strip-mining. Forests are clear cut, wetlands are drained, and living matter and soil are hauled away to expose the tar sands (also known as oil sands). Oil is then extracted from tar sands through an energy intensive upgrading and refining process to turn it into transportation fuel.

For every one barrel of oil produced from tar sands extraction, oil companies remove and dump four tons of sand and soil. The pollution created by the tar sands extraction and refining processes causes cancer hot spots in indigenous communities and environmental degradation downstream. The companies responsible have failed to deliver on promises to mitigate some of this destruction by refilling tar sands mines and planting new vegetation.

People in the U.S. have been led to believe that we need tar sands oil to meet energy demands, in spite of the fact that three times more carbon dioxide is emitted from tar sands oil production as compared to the average barrel of conventional oil consumed in the U.S. The EPA has already rated the air quality unacceptable in the Texan Gulf Coast communities that surround the very refineries that will handle the tar sands oil. Replacing the crude oil currently being used by refineries with tar sands oil is expected to increase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 38 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (an amount equal to the annual emissions of six million cars).

A recent report by Oil Change International claims, however, that it is the global oil market driving demand, and that the oil and gas industry is misleading the U.S. public regarding the need for the Keystone XL pipeline for U.S. energy security and lower prices at the pump. The Keystone XL Pipeline will direct dirty tar sands oil to the perfect location for oil exports, profiting only the oil and gas industry. In its regulatory disclosers and presentations to investors, Valero, the largest exporter of petroleum products in the United States, reveals that it plans to refine Canadian tar sands into fuels for export.

Because global demand is high, Canadian oil companies want to double their tar sands oil exports to the U.S. and other countries by building the new TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, to ship tar sands oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and shipping facilities. The proposed pipeline threatens to endanger the health of communities, farmland and fragile ecosystems along its 1,700 mile path from Canada, through the states of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Pipeline breaks are not uncommon. The fact that the TransCanada's brand new Keystone tar sands pipeline has spilled 12 times in 12 months and that regulators indicate that tar sands may cause more "wear and tear" on pipelines has citizens living in these six states concerned and angered. More than two million oil pipelines (mostly underground) crisscross the United States in various states. Recent breaks in these pipelines have caused dangerous leaks in Alaska and California and spills in the Yellowstone and Kalamazoo rivers. After several ruptures leading to contamination and evacuation Congress has worked in a bipartisan fashion to tighten pipeline safety. Two congressional bills include reporting requirements for maximum pressure and stricter requirements for pipelines crossing waterways.

On the other hand, the "North American-Made Energy Security Act" introduced by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) and passed by the House in late July, would require the administration to expedite its decision-making on the tar sands pipeline. On the U.S. administration side the permit process seems to be drawing to a close. In meetings with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in early August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that after some safety enhancements, the State Department is likely to approve the pipeline.

President Obama alone must decide whether to approve or reject the Keystone XL Pipeline. Every day from August 20 to September 3, thousands of U.S. citizens – including environmental leader Bill McKibben, NASA's Dr. James Hansen and religious leaders from every faith, plus the staff of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns – gathered in front of the White House, demanding Obama live up to his campaign promise to create a clean-energy economy. In this continent's biggest civil disobedience action this century, 1,252 people were arrested in acts of peaceful resistance. The approved pipeline's implication for climate change has global repercussions also: Activists picketed outside U.S. embassies and consulates, and 618,428 people around the world signed the "Stop the Tar Sands" petition asking President Obama to stop the pipeline.

Similar Tar Sands actions are being planned in Ottawa for September 26. For information or to join an action please go to, or learn more about the campaign at

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