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Winona LaDuke, Published January 26 2013

Letter: Sen. Heitkamp endorses environmental disaster

Newly elected Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., spent some time last week talking about how she is looking forward to approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline, following Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman’s nod to the project. She mentioned how nice the inaugural party was at the Canadian Embassy. This is no surprise.

Apparently Heitkamp missed President Barack Obama’s words on climate change: “… We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. ...” Perhaps Heitkamp has not come to terms with the situation or the 300-plus months of weather records and disasters.


There are good reasons why the Keystone XL pipeline is the battleground. It is an ecological disaster. According to a recent study, carbon emissions from tar sands extraction and upgrading produce between 14 and 37 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average gallon of fuel from conventional oil. The pipeline gives the tar sands a way out.

Climate scientists (every major international and national organization) say we have a “reasonable chance” of averting major cataclysmic climate disaster if we lower greenhouse gas emissions through a measured set of practices and efficiencies, or to 350 parts per million, rather quickly. The reasonable chance is four out of five, which is not bad if you’re playing any game but Russian roulette. We have a loaded gun, and it’s full of tar sands.

The math says we can combust 565 gigatons of carbon to stay within that reasonable chance. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry holds reserves of 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuels, representing about five times what we can burn. The Athabascan Tar Sands itself has 240 gigatons of carbon, contained within the earth until we gouge it out. And that’s what the pipeline is about.

Bad choices

In short, you’ve got a dysfunctional set of climate choices that Heitkamp and Heineman are trying to push through because they drank bad economic Kool-Aid.

Heitkamp and Heineman have astounding opportunities. North Dakota and Nebraska are some pretty sweet undeveloped wind regimes. Wind energy comes on line because we invest in it at the front end, and after that, unlike the incalculable costs of dirty fossil fuels, we can project the price of wind into the future.

Tar sands oil makes the fracked oil rush of western North Dakota look only somewhat crazy. So, if you’re trying to get access to a pipeline for your oil, rethink your plan.

Spills common

There’s a shallow set of aquifers in our region, and it’s almost a pipeline-free zone. They are not making any new water, nor are we protecting most of it. Over a 20-year period, Enbridge Pipelines reported 610 spills, which released 132,000 barrels of hydrocarbons into wetlands, farms and waterways. That is approximately half the oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster; it just dribbled not gushed.

Except for the 2010 Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill in Michigan, with more than 800,000 gallons, Enbridge’s pipeline operators were unable to shut down the pipeline for 12 hours. The city of Kalamazoo has clout and someone noticed, so the response there was good by industry standards. It is unlikely that the spill response would be nearly so prompt anywhere in the Northern Plains. Industry is petitioning for structurally less sound pipelines in low population zones – that is, all of the Northern Plains. So, as I always tell my kids, “Don’t do it,” and I’m telling Heitkamp the same.

Lost opportunity?

A baffling mathematical equation meets a political equation. Instead of

$100 billion in investments into a bad set of economic choices, what if we invested into efficiency, local foods and infrastructure for renewables? That is a durable set of economic choices that will save our children and the planet.

Heitkamp will be in office for six years, but her decisions will affect countless generations. She has an opportunity to do something visionary and courageous.

LaDuke is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist and writer. She is executive director, White Earth Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.