Local environmentalists are concerned regarding recent reports on the Keystone XL pipeline. A State Department report was released last week that concluded the environmental impact of the project, a proposed 1,179-mile oil pipeline, would be inconsequential. In response to the report, on Monday night, a dozen protestors gathered in downtown Birmingham for a candlelight vigil with the intent of raising local awareness.
The controversial project may have gotten more complicated in light of the new report. Republicans have pressured the Obama administration to sign off on the pipeline, which they argue will create jobs, while Democrats and environmentalists say these jobs will be temporary, but the impact the project would have on the climate will be permanent.
The pipeline would begin in Alberta, Canada, where the oil would be extracted from tar sand deposits. The technique for extracting the oil from the porous ground is a controversial one. Environmentalists believe that the amount of energy used to extract the oil negates the reason to obtain it in the first place, and that it will accelerate global warming.
“In Alberta, Canada there is a vast, vast supply of tar sands, which is the dirtiest type of oil that exists on the planet,” Melina Hammer, a photographer based out of Birmingham and a pipeline protestor, said.
The first phase of the pipeline would run from the tar sands in Canada to a transfer station in Steel City, Nebraska. From there, the pipeline will continue through Oklahoma and into Texas, eventually reaching the Gulf Coast.
On Monday evening, Hammer organized a candlelight vigil in response to the new State Department report that found no evidence of environmental hazards affiliated with a possible pipeline project. “Basically it is oil that is suspended in tar and sand, which means you have to use all types of chemicals to extract the oil from the sand. So the byproduct that is produced from this has to go someplace. And that byproduct is carcinogenic and toxic to anything it comes into contact with.”
She explained that in the wake of the oil extraction, a toxic landscape is left behind. In some cases, she said, you can see scarecrows in the middle of the waste to deter birds from landing there.
Hammer asserts that the jobs that would be created by the Keystone XL pipeline would be temporary and would not do much to help local economies. “There are going to be people who are trucked in for day labor wages and not for local economies, which is another sham being laid forth to the communities that would be affected,” Hammer said.
Hammer’s husband, Jim Lafferty, who was holding up a “No Keystone XL” sign at the vigil, said that he got involved because he believes that change has to start on a local level.
“At some point, we need someone to set a social and political initiative to turn away from these sources of fossil fuels that put us at risk. We need to take the human consequence into account,” he said. Lafferty said that the result of extracting the oil from the tar sands would cause a spike in carbon emissions, contributing to increasing frequency of what he calls “disastrous climate events.”
Hammer, who moved to Birmingham from New York eight months ago, said that she is surprised at the winter weather the South has been experiencing lately.
“We’re already starting to see some of the effects of climate changes,” Hammer said. “For instance, ‘snowpocalypse’ last week, polar vortex in the northeast and huge wildfires out west. If you start to link these events together, you start to see weather patterns intensifying. It’s not just the environment that gets screwed,” Hammer said.
Anne Ledvina said that the reason she attended the vigil was to help raise awareness of an issue that isn’t on too many people’s radars. “I’m here because we need our president to understand that this is an important issue to all of us. We need to protect our environment. There are other sources of oil we can use,” Ledvina said.
Ledvina’s two young daughters were also holding signs and candles in protest of the pipeline. “I’m also here because I think it is important for my children to learn how to stand up for what they believe in,” Ledvina said.
Hammer agrees with this notion of taking action, no matter how small, for what she believes in. According to her, the pipeline would wreak havoc on an already unstable climate and would be lightly regulated by a government that has a bad record of neglecting environmental regulations.
“In the United States government, regulation is very minimal. So you have these major fossil fuel companies who are going to try and get away with as much as they can so they can maximize their profits — so that the oversight of making sure that these pipelines are totally fail-proof isn’t the reality of what’s happening,” Hammer said.
Alabama is no stranger to the consequences of poorly regulated oil production, Lafferty said, referencing the Gulf oil spill. He believes that the local population is who pays for these types of environmental disasters, not the companies who operate the equipment.
“You’re going to have these corporations receive massive profits and socialize the losses,” Lafferty said. “In the case of something like the Keystone XL pipeline or oil production in the Gulf, when something happens, the companies themselves won’t foot the bill for it. The environment and the people who live close to it do; with their physical health, the cleanliness of their drinking water, they’re the ones who pay for it,” Lafferty said.
As House Republicans and Democrats press the Obama administration to make a decision, it is still unclear whether or not the president will approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
“There is so much pressure on the president,” Levina said. “But I hope he does the right thing and thinks long term about the next generation, about our generation and the many to follow. And for him to think about who exactly this pipeline will benefit.”