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Activists and scientists cry foul as Obama pushes ahead on Keystone XL

A major political victory for environmental activists was partially reversed Thursday after President Barack Obama appeared in Oklahoma to announce that his administration has fast-tracked the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive project that aims to connect Canada’s tar sands to oil refineries on the Texas gulf coast.

Speaking to Raw Story, environmental author and activist Bill McKibben suggested the Obama administration’s latest move may be due to Washington rhetoric pushing the president to appear that he’s doing something to ease rising oil prices.

“The irony of [this situation] is that Keystone won’t bring down gas prices a bit,” he explained. “In fact, it will raise them significantly across the midwest, precisely because that glut of oil in the region is helping to depress prices for now. That’s one of many ironies. The biggest, of course, is that all this is happening on the week when America is seeing March temperatures completely unheard of in the historical record.”

McKibben isn’t the only one who maintains that opinion: An Associated Press analysis published this week concluded that even a vast uptick in domestic oil production in the U.S. or Canada would not affect prices in the near-term.

“That’s because oil is a global commodity, and U.S. production has only a tiny influence on supply,” the AP’s analysis found. “Factors far beyond the control of a nation or a president dictate the price of gasoline.”

In spite of this, Obama’s primary political rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R), has been hammering the president and his “gas hike trio” of advisers for the nation’s rising energy costs. Congressional Republicans, too, have insisted that the president’s policy of expanding subsidies for renewable energy research contribute to gas prices.

Rounding out the “Catch 22″ of Obama’s energy conundrum, his partial reversal on Keystone also has leading scientists crying foul.

“The vast majority of all [Canadian] carbon emission increases will be from oil sands development,” Nathan Lemphers, a senior policy analyst at Canada’s Pembina Institute, a leading climate change research center, explained to Raw Story. “A lot of the low-hanging fruit, in terms of technological efficiency, have already been addressed, so what you’re seeing is a shift to poorer quality reserves, which take more energy, and therefore emissions, to extract.”

Canada’s oil sands represent precisely that, he said, because it is more like sand-covered tar — much different in composition to what most Americans would recognize as oil. Oil sand, unlike the traditional light, sweet crude, is not easily transported and poses a very different environmental threat, apart from emissions.

“In order to transport it through pipelines, you either have to dilute it with a natural gas agent that reduces the viscosity of the oil so it can flow a bit more easily through the pipe, or you have to upgrade it to a synthetic crude oil… [which requires a] temperature that’s significantly higher,” Lemphers added. “The pressure is also quite a bit higher, and there’s a lot more grit, or sand, that’s being shipped, which has the potential to increase erosion of the pipelines.”

He pointed to that very scenario as contributing to the oil sands spill two years ago in Michigan, when oil not unlike what’s planned for Keystone XL flooded into the Kalamazoo river and, instead of floating, hardened and sank. Now some 20 months later, Michigan residents are still trying to clean up the river, and the company responsible has faced costs more than 10 times the normal going rate for oil spill mitigation.

“It’s very heavy and has a density that’s heavier than water, so what happens is… it actually sinks to the bottom of the water column,” Lemphers continued. “That presents all sorts of problems for spill cleanup and different technologies like skimmers and things like you saw deployed on the gulf coast — they would not be effective in an [oil sands] spill, so you would need to dredge the entire bottom of the river, not to mention [finding new ways to clean] the heavy metals and other toxins that exist in the oil sands.”

In Texas, where eminent domain proceedings are already underway to clear a path for Keystone, activists with the Sierra Club and Public Citizen said they would rally outside Gov. Rick Perry’s offices in the capitol on March 31 to demand a moratorium on the project.

Short of that effort succeeding — and it is absolutely a long shot due to Perry’s support for the project — McKibben added that his group, the climate change activist organization 350.org, would also begin focusing on oil and gas subsidies, opening another front against dirty energy companies.

“We’ll be launching [that] fight next week at 350.org, and looking forward to real leadership from, among others, Sen. Bernie Sanders [I-VT], who will introduce a bill targeting these breaks,” he said.

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