A case against the Keystone XL pipeline

October 17, 2011

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pass through six states, carrying diluted bitumen from the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Because the pipeline would enter the United States from another country, TransCanada can build the pipeline only if the President of the United States issues a permit. The State Department will give a recommendation for or against issuing the permit sometime this fall.

Many Nebraskans are concerned about the proposed pipeline route, which passes through our Sandhills region and over the Ogallala aquifer. The Sandhills is a unique and fragile ecosystem, subject to erosion in the form of blowouts when the top layer of grasses is removed. The Ogallala aquifer provides drinking water for a large area of our state and water for agriculture. There is fear that a leak in the pipeline could pollute the water in the aquifer, resulting in serious economic consequences for farmers, ranchers, and towns in Nebraska.

With State Department hearings about the pipeline recently finished in the states along the pipeline route and in Washington, DC, we have been hearing arguments for and against construction of the pipeline. The State Department's question is whether granting permission for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest; that has brought to the forefront of the debate in Nebraska questions about economic gain or loss and questions about a foreign company being able to pass a pipeline through private ranchland.

Both the Rev. Don Huber, rector of St. Matthew's in Alliance, Nebraska, and I had been thinking about this issue. Talking about it late this summer, we realized that while our reasons for opposing the pipeline included the concerns we heard others express, there were other questions we were asking as Christians that compelled us to speak to the issue. Being mindful of both Christ's commandment to love our neighbors and the Scriptural call to be tillers and caretakers of the earth, stewards of creation, we asked: Does the proposed pipeline harm or hurt humanity as a whole? Is building it consistent with the wise and reverent use of creation? If we as a people and a nation agree to the building of this pipeline, will we be acting as good stewards of creation?

We answered the questions in an op-ed piece we sent to several newspapers in Nebraska. Before sending it, we circulated it among other Episcopal clergy in the Diocese of Nebraska we thought might have an interest in the issue. We ended up with the names of 21 priests and deacons who supported our statement.

The local concerns, especially concerns about the Ogallala aquifer and about appropriating land to build the pipeline from people who depend on the land and water for their livelihoods, partly answered our questions, leading us to conclude that the project was "at its best risky business and at its worst morally reprehensible."

Beyond these local concerns, we considered the impact of the mining of the Athabasca Tar Sands on the First Nations people who have lived along the Athabasca River for generations. Contamination of the land and water along with reduced river flow has negatively affected their hunting, fishing, and health. The Tar Sands region is in the Canadian boreal forest, an ecosystem whose continuing ability to function as the largest carbon storage area on earth is essential to mitigation of global warming that causes climate change. The boreal forest is also an essential habitat for migrating birds. Furthermore, the impact of mining and processing the tar sands and burning the refined oil is predicted to significantly raise greenhouse gas emissions that result in increased global warming. A project that harms indigenous people, endangers migratory birds, and accelerates global warming seems to us not to serve God and God's purposes for humankind and the rest of creation.

I've been asked why Episcopal clergy chose to speak out on this issue. When the livelihoods and even the very lives of people near and far are risked for economic gain, and when all living things are threatened by increased greenhouse gas emissions, remaining silent seems inconsistent with love for our neighbors and love for God, the Creator. Moreover, as climate change accelerates and changes our world in ways we are only beginning to comprehend, we hope future generations won't have reason to ask why people in the church now failed to speak and act.

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