One of the first things you notice about Fort McMurray, Alberta is the smell. The noxious scent of raw chemicals in the air is unmistakable: it’s tar sands.
The Canadian tar sands are at the center of the Keystone XL debate. Here, in Fort McMurray, it’s being extracted on an astounding scale—and if the oil companies have their way, the area of pristine wilderness scarred by tar sands development will only get bigger.
Exploitation of bitumen has created a boomtown in the middle of nowhere, with thousands of workers camped out in row after row of what the locals call “Mancamps” — barracks filled with people trying to make a good living under the most unpleasant conditions.
Seeing these operations from the ground, you only get a small sense of the true impact that tar sands development has had on this land — the mining operations are hidden behind a fine layer of tall boreal trees lining the highway. But when we took to the air, it was immediately apparent that behind those few trees, there was next to nothing left in the heart of the tar sands mines.
Tar sands development is ugly — and not trying to be anything else. Craters pockmark acres of former forest in a scene out of a dystopian epic, with flares and billowing smoke stacks on the horizon, and the sound of cannons scaring off wildlife from the massive manmade tailing ponds holding the toxic remnants that development leaves behind. It is painful to watch.
It is amazing what our society is capable of when looking for sources of energy. The resources we can move, the way we can restructure the earth at a scale that can be seen from space—we’re capable of colossal feats of science and engineering. But what if we put these abilities to use in a different way?
Even without the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands mining operations are already moving millions of barrels of oil per day. This process is 17% more carbon intensive than developing conventional oil and exploiting the tar sands to their full potential would be disastrous for the climate.
The decision whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is a surprisingly simple one: will we green-light the tar sands superhighway through the heart of America, and allow it to grow to it’s full, disastrous potential? Or will we instead tap America’s boundless ingenuity to find better alternatives?
It’s a fight for our future, and for our children. I’m pleased that the State Department is extending its review of the Keystone XL pipeline to fully address new concerns, because a choice of this magnitude requires a full assessment of all of the facts.
I have always firmly believed that Keystone XL unlocks even more carbon pollution in the Alberta tar sands, and my trip to the source convinced me even further that this is not an investment we can afford to make.
If you agree, I urge you to join NextGen Climate as we continue make sure our political representatives are keeping the future of our next generation at the top of their agenda.