Minnesota’s Keystone

I bet you don’t know that here in Minnesota we could soon have our own equivalent to the Keystone XL pipeline. This is not good news.

I bet you don’t know that while the northern half of the Keystone XL has not yet been built (through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska), our newest tar sands oil pipeline has been in place since 2010, and it has been transporting an enormous amount of this dirty oil across our land every day since. I bet you don’t know that this oil pipeline cuts across northern Minnesota, through our forests and wetlands, and under our rivers and lakes.

You may know that a pipe busted open in Michigan in 2010 and dumped a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. This kind of thing could happen in Minnesota. They are still trying to clean up that mess.

The name of the Canadian company that owns both the Michigan and the Minnesota pipeline is Enbridge. I bet you don’t know that Enbridge has asked permission to nearly double the amount of tar sands oil flowing through their new pipe across Minnesota, and, if that request were granted, it would bring the amount in it up to Keystone XL levels.

A group called MN350 is fighting this attempt by Enbridge to drastically increase the flow of tar sands oil in this pipe. There will soon be a hearing on the issue in front of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). You could submit written comments and/or attend the hearing on April 3rd at 3 p.m. (at 121 E. 7th Place, in downtown St. Paul). Put it on your calendar. If you don’t want to speak at the hearing, that’s okay. Just showing up sends a message.

If facing the large issues of the day makes you want to curl up in a ball and quit, that is understandable, but going to this hearing is (close to) guaranteed to make you feel better. There will be a mix of well-informed college students and young adults who are trying to turn our climate crisis around, along with baby boomers and older folks who have decided not to sit home and watch as our natural world gets more and more degraded, and the quality of life for our children and grandchildren deteriorates by the day.

If you’ve stayed with me this long you might be thinking: What in the world is so bad about tar sands oil, anyway? Why all the flap? Glad you asked.

Burning fossil fuels of any kind (oil, coal, and natural gas) contributes to climate change. Regular oil, the kind that is easy to get to, has essentially been gotten to. Now we are going after what is hardest to get to, like tar sands oil. Some people call this “extreme energy extraction.” It is extreme because we burn large amounts of energy just to get the stuff out of the ground and processed into usable form (think about it: we are using beaucoup energy to get energy).

And it is extreme because getting it out of the ground, processing it, and transporting it are highly destructive to life on the planet. Extracting tar sands oil pollutes water. And Native people who live downstream from the large tar sands mine in Alberta are struggling with high rates of cancer.

So, what is tar sands oil itself? Think of what is left in a peanut butter jar after you’ve used up the smooth, spreadable part: hard chunks that look like clay, right? Tar sands oil is something like that. When dug up, it is way too thick to be piped. It has to be mixed with chemicals, creating a toxic brew. (Though it is black, thick and tarry, the oil companies have dropped the word “tar.” They are now calling it “oil sands.” I still call it tar sands oil.)

The large tar sands oil deposit that is being mined right now is up in Alberta, Canada. To get at the oil they do one of two things: they drill down and inject steam and chemicals into the earth, or they use earthmovers the size of buildings in downtown Minneapolis to first scrape off the northern forest, then dig out the glork. The enormous scale of this industrial enterprise makes it one of the most destructive that human beings have ever undertaken. The scar from extracting tar sands oil is already so large it can be seen from outer space.

Join the effort to say no to Enbridge’s request. Let’s move toward sane energy policies and a healthy future. To get more information on submitting comments and attending that April hearing, send an email to: Kathy@mn350.org. See you there. 

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.