The Keystone XL pipeline, the target of many environmental and health-advocacy groups in the United States and Canada, has found an unlikely ally in the Asthma Society of Canada. The group recently released a statement supporting the pipeline; two members of the Society’s Board of Directors, Stephen Eyre and Dr. Susan Waserman, published a short piece entitled “Pipelines help us breathe easier” in the Canadian Sun.
The Society is a non-profit organization whose mission is to be the “balanced voice for asthma in Canada,” and it “facilitates dialogue and debate on issues impacting Canadians with asthma.” The Asthma Society’s support for Keystone XL is not in the best interests of its constituents, however.
The Asthma Society clearly recognizes the dangers of air pollution. In the statement, they cite the fact that three million Canadians are affected by asthma and that 250 of them will die this year because of it. Yet the Asthma Society’s endorsement of Keystone XL will only make this problem worse.
The tar sands in Northern Canada contain a vast quantity of bitumen, a solid state of petroleum mixed with water, sand, and clay. Tar sands oil is an unconventional fossil fuel because of the energy-intensive extraction process that is required to separate the oil from the sand. The pipeline would move 830,000 barrels of this crude tar sands oil per day from Alberta to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico.
Because of the increased air pollution from the extraction and refining of more tar sands oil, the pipeline would drive up both the number of Canadians suffering from asthma and the number of deaths that would be caused by it. It’s evident that the Society’s stance is not aligned with helping Canadians breathe easier.
The Real Issue is Extraction
The crux of the Asthma Society’s argument in favor of Keystone XL is that the pipeline will avoid the “high-emitting, diesel-powered trucks, trains and tankers” which would transport Canada’s dirty tar sands oil if the pipeline was not built. “The positive impact pipelines can have on air quality cannot be overstated,” they write.
This line of reasoning is short-sighted and simplistic. It relies on the false assumption that the same quantity of tar sands oil will be extracted with or without Keystone XL. However, even if trucking, rail, and barge systems were set up (they are currently facing construction and cost obstacles, which is why oil interests have turned to the pipeline in the first place), significantly less tar sands oil would be processed without Keystone XL.
In a market analysis, the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) brokerage services called Keystone XL a “key supply chain link” for tar sands. Various studies show that Keystone XL would expand tar sands exploitation much beyond its level today and even more than with an expansion of rail-based options because of cost and capacity differences between the two means of transport.
The same RBC report predicted that if Keystone XL was not built, tar sands extraction would be reduced by 450,000 barrels per day from 2014 until 2017—preventing the emissions of 276,750,000 grams of nitrogen oxide, 186,300,000 grams of sulphur dioxide, and 6,750,000 grams of particulate matter each day. This would far outweigh the toxic pollution from trucks, trains, and tankers.
Additionally, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed that oil production in the Athabasca tar sands region has increased emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) by two to threefold. PAHs are carcinogenic chemicals produced during the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, and they have been linked to asthma. Prenatal exposure to PAHs has also proven to cause birth defects, lower IQ scores, and anxiety and depression in children.
The PNAS study found much higher levels of air pollution in the tar sands region than was reported by Canada’s official National Pollutant Release Inventory or the environmental impact assessments conducted by the mining companies. This is because the PNAS study takes into account pollution from contaminated bodies of water near extraction sites, known as tailing ponds, while the mining companies and the Canadian government ignore this source. According to the PNAS report, the tailing ponds will contribute more atmospheric pollution than the oil extraction process itself. Dr. John O’Connor, a family physician in Alberta, told U.S. senators at a press conference that there are many “published, peer-reviewed studies that indicate that the government[s] of Alberta and Canada have been lying, misrepresenting the impact of industry on the environment.”
Current oil production has already led to a spike in air pollution levels in Alberta. The number of “exceedances,” instances when air pollution is higher than government standards, increased by 3,200 percent from 2004 to 2009—during which time tar sands extraction also dramatically grew. Dr. O’Connor has seen rates of asthma and cancer increase alongside the air pollution caused by these events, and several other studies corroborate his observations.
Extraction is not the only way the pipeline threatens public health. Keystone XL will transport tar sands to refineries located in U.S. towns that already have higher than normal rates of asthma. Calling for a more comprehensive study on the health impacts of tar sands, U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote in a letter to the State Department “that putting more Americans at risk for asthma, cancer, and other serious health impacts is not in our national interest.”
Boxer and Whitehouse are right: tar sands and the pipelines that transport them perpetuate a serious threat to clean air and water. The Asthma Society’s support for Keystone XL has proven them to be hypocrites. Though they purport to be protectors of public health, their endorsement actually endangers it.