Open Pit Bitumen Mine. Photo courtesy of Louis Helbig (click for link)

A lot of people are upset about TransCanada’s Keystone XL — the 1,600 mile pipeline that would ship tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. They’re protesting outside the White House. They’re protesting in Canada. Hell, they’re even protesting in Nebraska.

There are plenty of good reasons to hate this project. It’s a complete disaster for the areas surrounding the mines, obviously. But lately, the arguments against the pipeline are piling up in two main areas: the possible mess this stuff will cause in a spill, and the guaranteed mess it will cause when it’s refined and burned. There’s no shortage of opportunities for this pipeline to cause major problems if there’s a spill. The proposed path would cross 70 streams and rivers along with the Ogallala Aquifer, a major supplier of ground-water for US agriculture. There are plenty of bad scenarios that can play out here, but the main issue is going to be the refining of this garbage. It takes two-and-a-half times as much energy to refine as conventional oil. That means your Prius is effectively going to get the same mileage as a Camry. And your Camry is going to get the same effective mileage as a Tacoma pickup truck. And your pickup truck? That will get you mileage closer to a U-Haul.

71% of the oil we use is for transportation. That is, cars and trucks. Driving to work. Driving to the store. If we don’t want this pipeline going across the center of our country, and we don’t want to burn the dirtiest fuel imaginable in our 254,000,000+ cars and trucks, we need to drive less. And while it’s true that higher CAFE standards for new cars will help, and electric cars will help, the energy used to refine tar sands or drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or in the Arctic is going to make quick work of any efficiencies Toyota, GM and Honda squeeze out of their engineers. And alternative energy? Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize winning oil historian says in his latest book that our current renewable technologies aren’t likely to provide enough inexpensive, reliable energy to replace fossil fuels.

So what do we do? If tar sands are profitable, we’re going to get tar sands gasoline. And if we perpetuate this situation in which we have to drive everywhere, we’re going to buy tar sands gasoline, whether we protest or not. The alternative isn’t going to be what we drive, but where we live. We need to build real cities. Real towns. Walkable neighborhoods. Places where transit can work. Places where we can choose not to drive.

Bitumen Slick. Photo courtesy of Louis Helbig (click for link)

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