Members of Congress on Wednesday implored the State Department to scrutinize the "significant" environmental impacts of a proposed massive pipeline that would carry Canadian tar sands oil 2,000 miles — from northern Alberta, across U.S. states to refineries in Texas and tankers off the Gulf coast.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, nearly 50 members of the House of Representatives said the agency "must determine whether the project is in the national interest" in terms of "clean energy and climate change priorities" before rubberstamping it.
Tar sands mining emits three times more greenhouse gas pollution than traditional oil, the letter stated. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), one of the lead signatories, further said the pipeline, which is slated to pass over the nation's largest underground aquifer, would leave "irreparable" environmental scars in its wake.
"This poses a direct threat to America’s heartland," Cohen told reporters. "It cuts through sensitive ecosystems, crosses rivers, invades ranches and farms and could scar this land forever."
TransCanada, the country's biggest power company, has been pressing for presidential approval of its $12 billion Keystone XL Pipeline, which would import up to 900,000 barrels a day and double U.S. consumption of the controversial fuel source.
Two other pipelines have already been okayed by the State Department — Keystone 1, which will eventually carry crude into Cushing, Okla., and the Alberta Clipper that will run from Canada to Superior, Wis.
If all three get built, tar sands would make up 15 percent of U.S. fuel supply, up from four percent today.
Turning tar sands into usable oil involves mining bitumen, a tar-like petroleum that's buried beneath the boreal forests in Alberta. Extraction requires substantial energy and water and creates sprawling tailing ponds that some analysts estimate are leaking three million gallons of contaminated waste into the ground each day, endangering wildlife and perhaps public health.
In the case of Keystone XL, refining the sticky crude would happen in Houston, in a process that would spew higher levels of dangerous pollutants than conventional oil production, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and heavy metals, the House members said.
Because of that, the letter calls on Secretary Clinton to demand from the Environmental Protection Agency a "full lifecycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions" involved in the project from Alberta to the Texas coast.
For Now, State Department Delays
The State Department must greenlight the pipeline because it crosses an international border. The sole criteria for approval is whether the project offers value to the national interest.
Even opponents concede that tar sands oil may have national security advantages over importing oil from Middle Eastern regimes. And not too long ago the pipeline was seen as a done deal.
But last week, in a small sign of uncertainty, the State Department added two weeks to the public comment period on its draft environmental impact statement, pushing it from June 16 to July 2. The move delays approval of the project by at least two weeks.
Observers suggest the calamitous BP oil spill was likely the culprit. In response to the delay, however, TransCanada said it is confident the project will get the go-ahead this year, allowing construction to begin in 2011.
Still, some members of Congress are hoping the hold-up turns into cancellation.
"Endorsing tar sands pipelines is a step in the wrong direction," Cohen said. "It's counter to what President Obama has stood for ... in getting us away from oil."
Indeed, in a speech to the nation on June 15 amid the oil gusher, President Obama said "as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude." He called it "the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."
And while the State Department declares that tar sands pipelines advance a number of strategic interests, some influential White House insiders clearly see things differently.
Podesta a Skunk at Canadian Event
John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress who headed the Obama transition team and is considered part of the president's inner circle on energy, surprised an audience of tar sands supporters this week when he denounced the fuel source as "inherently dirty," saying it "cannot be our energy future."
In a keynote speech at an event sponsored by Canada 2020 that was designed to shore up support for "greening" the oil source, Podesta admitted he was "skeptical about the 'green' vision for the tar sands."
"If the 'greening' in the title of this morning's program was conjured up to evoke a garden party in the oil sands, I'll try not to play the part of the skunk," Podesta said.