Keystone XL Paints Bleak Future for Caribou
I remember seeing the images of the tar sands region in Alberta, Canada for the first time: a lifeless wasteland of massive open pit mines, smokestacks spewing thick black fumes, and toxic waste ponds. “How can this happen?” I thought, “and in Canada, no less”—a country I associated with lush green forests and strong conservation values, certainly not capable of one of the worst environmental travesties in the world.This, I learned, is what happens when the “easy oil” runs out. Alberta’s vast tar sands oil deposits are extremely difficult to reach, mixed into sand or locked deep underneath the boreal forest—one of the largest and oldest intact rainforests on earth. To produce one barrel of oil, extractors level the forest, dig up four tons of earth, consume two to four barrels of fresh water, burn large amounts of natural gas and create toxic sludge holding ponds.
And since the boreal forest is one of the world’s largest storehouses of land-based carbon, when trees are logged or the soil is disturbed, carbon is released into the atmosphere. Overall, tar sands production emits three times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production—exacerbating climate change and extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy.
Tar Sands and CaribouThis all has a profound effect on local wildlife, and as this wasteland grows even vaster, the survival of several species is left hanging the balance.
Woodland caribou—the shy cousin to the reindeer—are struggling to survive as their boreal forest habitat is destroyed. Over the last 50 years, about half of caribou habitat has disappeared due to timber, oil and gas development in the heart of their range, leading to steep declines of populations.
Now, the dramatic expansion of tar sands is threatening to destroy what remains of their fragile habitat—and if development continues unchecked, scientists predict that some herds in the tar sands region could disappear in as little as 30 years. The situation has spiraled so out of control that it’s even prompted misguided plans by the Canadian government to “rescue” caribou by shooting hundreds of wolves.
Keystone XL Decision Looming
Following the opposition raised by hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens across the United States, in January 2012, President Obama denied the request to build the 1,700 mile-long Keystone XL pipeline—a project that is key to Big Oil’s plans to expand tar sands operations in caribou’s boreal forests.
Now, Keystone XL is back and President Obama is expected to make a final decision on the project early this year.
We’ve seen that the American public will not sit idly by while Keystone XL is rushed through, but we need strong leadership to stop this disastrous project once and for all. President Obama has identified climate change as one of the three priorities of his second term. Now, he has the chance to make good on his promise by considering the broader environmental implications of Keystone XL and addressing just how this pipeline fits into his vision of a clean energy future.