TransCanada Corp.'s bid to build the $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline is facing growing high-profile opposition, drawing fire from the Dalai Lama and eight other Nobel Peace Prize laureates, who insist the project will "endanger the entire planet."
In a letter released Wednesday, the nine Nobel laureates urged U.S. President Barack Obama not to approve construction of Keystone XL, which is planned to carry up to 700,000 barrels per day of oil sands bitumen to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
The letter is the latest salvo in a prominent campaign by activists and celebrities to block the project, which is quickly becoming the focal point of the debate about the oil sands' role in global energy needs and its impact on the environment.
Despite the opposition to Keystone XL, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Wednesday that he is increasingly optimistic the pipeline will get approved, pointing to supportive comments made by Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
Mr. Oliver said the Harper government is unperturbed by protests against the project, including the celebrity-studded demonstration in front of the White House last week in which activists and actors such as Margot Kidder and Daryl Hannah were arrested.
The letter's authors say the development of Alberta's oil sands will endanger the planet as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to catastrophic climate change.
"Your rejection of the pipeline provides a tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal and gas, and instead increase investment in renewable energies and energy efficiency."
In addition to the Dalai Lama, the letter was signed by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Irish peace campaigners Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams and U.S. anti-landmines activist Jody Williams. Ms. Williams was the only North American among the signators.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the Nobel laureates have allowed themselves to be used by "professional activists." "There are all kinds of games and stunts that are going to be played until a decision is made, and likely afterwards," Mr. Howard said.
He said the signatories failed to note that Canadian crude is "conflict-free" compared with oil imported from countries that are violent, undemocratic and have weak protection for the environment, workers or human rights.
Reiterating the argument of U.S. and Canadian environmental groups, the laureates' letter said the oil sands development represents the world's second largest potential source of greenhouse gas emissions. TransCanada says the claim ignores the vast reserves of coal in the U.S. and around the world, as well as the fact that most greenhouse gas emissions occur from consuming fuel in cars and airplanes, rather than extracting it.
In an environmental impact statement released last month, the U.S. State Department concluded that the Keystone XL pipeline will not lead to more greenhouse gas emissions because the oil sands would be developed and transported to markets by other means if the pipeline is blocked.
With the release of the environmental statement, the Obama administration is now reviewing whether the project is in the U.S. national interest. That process includes weighing environmental impacts, national security issues and economic factors.
Mr. Oliver said the State Department found the pipeline posed no undue risk to most environmental resources, noting Mr. Chu's findings.
"We are increasingly optimistic about the likelihood of a presidential permit, which will be based on his analysis of the national interest," Mr. Oliver said.
In an interview last week, Mr. Chu said companies are making "great strides" in improving the environmental impact of extraction, and represents a safe and secure source of imports.
While the activists' criticism may cause the Obama administration some political headaches, some analysts see more impact from local opposition, including Nebraska's Republican Governor and its two senators who want the route changed to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills area of the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies water to much of the state.