On Saturday, 1,400 New Englanders gathered in Portland to protest the potential use of a pipeline between Montreal and Maine to pump diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the East Coast.
Much of the emphasis of the coverage of this issue has been on the corrosive nature of the heavy tar sands oil and the potential for spills to cause environmental damage along the pipeline’s route through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
While it’s true that such a spill would cause an environmental crisis, we should remember that the oil successfully and safely reaching its destination would also be disastrous. As is so often the case, The Onion made this point best with its 2010 headline: Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe.
Global climate change, caused by the use of fossil fuels, is a massive, looming threat to our planet. It will be nearly impossible to undo the damage we’ve already caused. The Alberta tar sands contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use to date and if they are fully exploited, it’s game over for our climate.
The only thing that has stopped this carbon time bomb from exploding so far is the inherent difficulty of separating oil from sand and then transporting it to the rest of the world. The increased profitability of tar sands oil, combined with improved transportation links like this pipeline, are all it will take to fully unleash this disaster.
Yes, we should be concerned about the local environmental effects of a corrosive chemical cocktail traveling through an old pipeline right in our backyards, just as we should be concerned about the environmental degradation that tar sands oil production has already caused throughout a significant part of Northwest Canada.
That shouldn’t be our only concern. Less immediate but perhaps more important is the threat that this pipeline represents to our climate and to millions of vulnerable people, animals and ecosystems in every corner of the world.