The U.S. State Department approved a controversial pipeline project today that, once built, will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, into the northern United States.
Environmental groups and Native Americans who have been fighting the Alberta Clipper pipeline plan are already preparing a legal challenge.
"The State Department has rubber-stamped a project that will mean more air, water and global warming pollution, particularly in the communities near refineries that will process this dirty oil," said Earthjustice attorney Sarah Burt.
"The project's environmental review fails to show how construction of the Alberta Clipper is in the national interest. We will go to court to make sure that all the impacts of this pipeline are considered."
Extracting oil from the tar sands is an energy-intensive process that destroys pristine boreal forest, releases three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude oil, and contaminates three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced, leaving sprawling, toxic tailings ponds that can endanger wildlife.
The oil also contains 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead than conventional oil, toxins that are released into the water and air when the oil is refined.
But supporters point out that there's a lot of oil in the Canadian tar sands, more than 170 billion barrels of "proven" reserves held by a friendly neighbor.
President Obama left the final decision on the Alberta Clipper pipeline project to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been targeted this summer by demonstrators opposed to the pipeline. ForestEthics has run ads urging Obama to end U.S. support for the tar sands, Avaaz Action Factory acted out a skit outside Clinton's office with Clinton saving the planet from a tar sands monster, and a group from ForestEthics delivered a sample of tar sand sludge to Clinton's office.
Their pleas ultimately had little impact.
"After considerable review and evaluation today, the department issued a presidential permit to Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership for the Alberta Clipper pipeline," Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters this afternoon.
"This will advance a number of strategic interests of the United States, including expanding available supplies of energy, also increasing trade with a stable and reliable ally such as Canada, a positive economic signal during a difficult economic period."
"At the same time, we will continue to work internationally and with Canada to address the climate change problem – climate change challenge as we lead up to the international meeting in Copenhagen later this year."
The pipeline will run from Canada, across northern Minnesota, through the Chippewa National Forest, to Superior, Wis., a Great Lakes port and terminus for other U.S. pipelines bounds for Chicago and elsewhere.
The groups planning legal action — Earthjustice, Indigenous Environmental Network, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Sierra Club — say the permit decision for the pipeline contradicts Obama's promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to cut the nation's addiction to oil while investing in a clean energy future.
"Importing dirty tar sands oil is not in our national interest. It threatens our rural communities and our energy independence," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "At a time when concern is growing about the national security threat posed by global warming, it doesn't make sense to open our gates to one of the dirtiest fuels on earth."
"This pipeline will lock America into a dirty energy infrastructure for years to come. This is exactly the kind of project the State Department should be protecting us from."
When Obama visited Canada in February, environmentalists had hoped for a bold statement on climate action and the tar sands. Instead, Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced only a vague plan for a "clean energy dialogue" and agreed to work together on low-carbon technology.
In addition to the expected lawsuit, opponents are appealing to the U.S. Forest Service to stop the pipeline from traversing the Chippewa National Forest, and members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe are working on a referendum to could overturn the Leech Lake tribal council's agreement to allow the pipeline on tribal land.
In Canada, meanwhile, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is going after the government and major oil producers in a fight for its rights under an 1876 treaty to hunt, fish and trap animals on the same land that is being stripped away for tar sands production.
Canada is currently the United States' leading petroleum exporter, sending roughly twice the volume as the U.S. receives from Saudi Arabia.