Crude, Dirty, and Dangerous

March 6, 2013

Crude, Dirty, and Dangerous: Keystone XL Pipeline Foils America’s Hopes for a Sustainable Future

Nearly 40,000 people gathered in front of the White House in Washington D.C. on Sunday February 17th for the largest protest in U.S. history to address global climate change and the hopes for a sustainable future. The fight is against the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed project by TransCanada Corporation that would bring synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada to oil refineries in the U.S. Gulf coast. The pipeline would cross over 1,000 miles of the United States heartland, spanning six states and bringing with it heavy tar sands oil, an unconventional type of petroleum deposit that is dirtier, heavier, and more difficult to refine than conventional oil.

As conventional oil is being depleted around the world, big oil corporations are turning to dirty oil sands in order to keep their businesses booming.

Bitumen is a black, sticky, and highly viscous semi-solid or liquid form of petroleum found in remote oil deposits such as those in the Athabasca oil sands in Canada. The oil sands, otherwise referred to as tar sands or bituminous sands, contain bitumen that is entwined with sand, clay, and water, making extraction for the petroleum highly inefficient and costly. Due to its heavy and highly viscous nature, bitumen from the Alberta tar sands must be heated and diluted by lighter hydrocarbons in order to transport it through the proposed pipeline. The nature of this heavy oil not only makes it far more difficult to transport, but also far more likely to leak and devastate the surrounding environment. The threat of an oil spill at any portion of the proposed pipeline is one of immense concern as methods to clean up conventional oil would be ineffective on heavy tar sands oil.

Oiled wildlife from Gulf

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline crosses miles upon miles of pristine American environment, threatening wildlife and surrounding habitats across the country. The pipeline was originally proposed to cross over the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world. Providing drinking water to over 2 million people and supporting over $20 billion dollars in agriculture, an oil spill could absolutely devastate the region and cause unsurpassed damage to one of our planets few and rare freshwater resources. On a scale so enormously large, how could big oil and energy corporations possibly think that their proposed pipeline is worth the risk? Our sustenance, our homelands – our lives and the future of our children are what we put at stake if this plan is to continue forward.

Jean-Michel Cousteau assists in the cleanup of the Prestige oil spill in Spain

Sadly, in my lifetime I have witnessed some of the most devastating oil spills in human history. I have been on site at the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound Alaska, at the Prestige oil spill off the coastline of Galicia, Spain, and the most horrendous oil spill our civilization has ever seen, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I have stood alongside workers and volunteers fighting to save not only the precious landscapes and coastlines that they cherish and love, but also the beautiful creatures that have been plagued by the oil spewed from our negligence. Yet we cannot let these unmistakable tragedies become forgotten memories, we must learn from them and do everything in our power to stop such horrendous acts of negligence from happening again. This means stopping dirty energy and fuel from having a hold on our future.

Oil from Deepwater Horizon

Not only does the Keystone XL pipeline pose a threat to the environment by means of a spill or leak, but it also threatens the future sustainability of our planet in terms of carbon emissions. Studies from various universities and environmental groups have found that carbon emissions from oil-sand crude would be 12% to 22% higher than conventional oil. Curbing carbon emissions remains one of the forefront issues in combating global climate change. Scientists around the world have recognized that surface sea temperature rise, ocean level rise, ocean acidification, and global climate shifts are due to the increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Although natural CO2 levels are believed to fluctuate with natural Earth cycles, there is no denying that human activities have released more CO2 into the atmosphere by use of fossil fuels than the Earth can readily balance. If we are to move toward a sustainable future – if we are to give our children a chance for a future – we cannot continue to depend on dirty energy and dangerous fossil fuels.

Thousands of environmentalists, activists, and concerned citizens came together on Sunday to protest the proposed XL pipeline because it serves as a symbol for a larger fight – the fight for our future. As President Obama stood in front of the country during his Inaugural address, he made a pledge to the people of the United States, “We will respond to the threat of climate change knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The rally in Washington D.C. brought protestors to stand outside President Obama’s door and urge him to keep his promise and deny the construction of a project that would take America further away from the hopes a sustainable future.

To answer the call of climate change, we must embrace a completely different perspective of how we work in, exploit and manage the natural world, far beyond simply the search for new technology. We need a new philosophy about the appropriate use of technology and our relationship with nature.  We must remember that it is the natural world that keeps our planet habitable, and so far, most of our activities undermine the health and vitality of nature. It is within our power to make a change. There is only one Earth and we are all connected to one another. Our decisions now will mark the path we take into the future.

Please join us at Ocean Futures Society in our effort to spread the world about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It is the choices we make now and the fight we are willing to undertake that will determine the prospect of our future.

Warm Regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau

First Photograph: Oiled wildlife from the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

Second Photograph: Jean-Michel Cousteau assists workers in the cleanup of the Prestige oil spill in Spain © Nancy Marr, Ocean Futures Society

Third Photograph: 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society