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Spotted Owls and Pipelines: Our Obligation to the Natural Environment

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Nov 20, 2014 3:48:00 PM

Over the course of our nation’s history, there have been many issues that have sparked political and emotional division in the way that we see our relationship with nature.

Protection of the northern spotted owl is an example of one such issue. In the 1980’s, efforts to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species fueled a heated conflict between conservationists and the timber industry over the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

Ecologists and environmentalists avowed that we have a duty to protect the Earth and all of its precious creatures, particularly ‘indicator species’ such as the spotted owl that gauge the health of their surrounding ecosystems. The timber industry asserted that the utilization of the planet’s bountiful resources represents progress, enabling us to feed, shelter, and provide for our society, and that replanting efforts would sufficiently counterbalance logging activity.

After years of controversy, legislation was passed in 1990 to declare the northern spotted owl a threatened species, requiring timber companies to leave at least 40% of the old-growth forests intact within a 1.3 mile radius of any spotted owl nest or activity site. Neither side was particularly satisfied—the timber industry cried that the measure would affect thousands of jobs, and environmentalists appealed for even greater protection of the wilderness areas under consideration.

Spotted Owl

The spotted owl became the archetype that the furious factions used as leverage to disgorge their dogma, transforming the discussion of the bird and its habitat into a raging ideological battle. Ultimately, the mêlée was not about one species or habitat. Rather, it was about a much more profound underlying theme: our moral obligation to the natural environment.

Today, our nation is engaged a similar ideological dispute over the Keystone XL Pipeline, which hit a fractious crescendo earlier this week as the Senate narrowly rejected, by just one vote, legislation that would have approved the construction of the pipeline. This partisan and polarizing issue is certain to maintain its place on center stage as the 114th Congress makes its mark on history.

The discussion of the Keystone XL pipeline is not new—it began in 2008, when the TransCanada Corporation proposed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline (“XL” stands for eXport Limited”)—over 1,100 miles of pipeline to carry 850,000 barrels of oil per day from Western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the oil would be processed and then shipped overseas.

While portions of the pipeline are already completed, the bulk of the U.S. construction has been halted due to inadequate data regarding the environmental impact of the pipeline, including oil spill response plans, safety issues, and greenhouse gas concerns. Since the extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands results in 17% higher greenhouse gas emissions when compared the extraction of other types of oil sources, the full exploitation of the tar sands is expected to add 60 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, increasing the total to 450PPM, which according to author Samuel Avery is “the likely threshold level at which critical climate feedback loops take effect and runaway global warming begins.”

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline claim that the pipeline will generate revenues and up to 9,000 jobs in the areas where the pipeline is installed, and they draw attention to changes that have been made to the original proposal in light of environmental concerns, including new proposed routes (which would minimize the impact on the Sand Hills in Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer) and a reduction in the overall length of the pipeline.

Critics avow that the inevitable environmental damage caused by the construction and ongoing use (with expected leakages) of the pipeline far outweigh any benefits that come from increased revenues or jobs, particularly since ongoing revenues would primarily go to the oil companies (not Mainstreet America) and the bulk of the jobs would only be temporary during the construction phase. Furthermore, opponents point out that the pipeline will not increase U.S. energy independence since the majority of the oil will be shipped abroad for end use.

The topic of the Keystone Pipeline has become such a political hot potato that I wonder if partisanship is actually trumping logic. After all, the real issue at hand is not the pipeline—it’s how we provide for and protect our citizens.

At the end of the day, the future of our planet, and all of the precious species on it, might just hang in the balance of this pivotal issue—not just in the decision about the Keystone Pipeline alone (even through NASA scientist James Hansen said in 2011 that “the construction of the Keystone pipeline would mean game over for the planet”,) but in the larger discussion about the future of energy.

Investing our time, jobs, money, and other resources into a dirty energy source that is polluting our planet makes no sense, regardless of which side of the aisle you’re standing on, especially when clean, renewable energy sources are technologically advanced and cost-effective enough to provide all of the energy that we need.

With that said, I can help but wonder, are our elected officials really thinking through the long-term benefits and drawbacks of the pipeline, or has the debate deteriorated into a chest beating contest to prove who can most effectively manipulate the system?

What do you think about the Keystone Pipeline debate? Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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