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Choosing Security Over Environmental Justice? Not Exactly

August 22, 2009

The U.S. Department of State has issued a Presidential Permit to allow a pipeline from Canadian deposits of oil sands to cross the border into the U.S. This is despite the fact that extraction from oil sands is a particularly harmful way to obtain crude. It is an especially carbon-intensive process, releasing 170 pounds of greenhouse gases per barrel. Environment Canada predicts that oil sands will account for eight percent of Canada’s greenhouse emissions by 2010.  Moreover, the process requires between two and four-and-a-half gallons of water to obtain a single barrel; increased demand on water in Alberta could damage already struggling fish runs in a watershed also shared by Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and several First Nations communities.

The impact on First Nations communities shows that this is also an issue of environmental justice. Indeed, the pipeline itself is planned to run through the lands of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and while the tribal council did approve this, it is still subject to a referendum among members of the group. It is highly problematic that the U.S. Presidential Permit, as well as Canadian permits previously approved, have been issued before this vote has taken place.

It may seem then that the U.S. has chosen security over environmental justice. That is, indeed, what the State Department has said:

[Benefits] included increasing the diversity of available supplies among the United States’ worldwide crude oil sources in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil producing countries and regions; shortening the transportation pathway for crude oil supplies; and increasing crude oil supplies from a major non-Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries producer.

This ignores, however, that protection from environmental degradation is part of security. Dying from the sort of extreme weather climate change increases is as real as dying from a terrorist attack or a war, so if security means the protection of a nation’s citizens, the reduction of greenhouse gases must be treated as a national security goal, but don’t just take my word for it. Ask Rep. Henry A. Waxman and Sen. Fran Pavley or any number of military and intelligence analysts.

Climate change poses real threats to security. Instead of seeking new sources of oil then, the best way to protect everyone’s security, particularly the health and safety of women, would be to develop truly sustainable sources of energy. Building a pipeline to Canadian oil sands only puts off the day when we will have to deal with the problem of oil-dependence.

In this case, an international coalition of environmental groups has stepped forward to challenge the decision in court. You can donate to one of these groups, Earthjustice, here.

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