What’s oil got to do with it?


Keystone XL Pipeline map, courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

The Keystone XL Pipeline promises to bring upwards of 9,000 jobs to the United States, along with many thousands of temporary jobs in the creation of parts, manufacture and installation of the pipeline. Aside from the potential for environmental catastrophe from leaks in the pipeline, it seems like a sound economic choice. (One could argue a leak would also create jobs, I suppose.) What does this have to do with aquatic ecology, you might ask?

Authors Erin Nelly, Jeffrey Short and David Schindler among many others could tell you. In their paper, “Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries,” they share their findings that the atmospheric component of oil sands processing is contributing more polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to the surrounding environment than previously thought. The authors found that the particles lodged in the snow pack, and were released seasonally in snowmelt in high enough concentrations to cause toxicity to fish embryos, as well as cause effects to juvenile fish development and reproduction.

While this study was based on data collected from the Athabasca River and its tributaries in Alberta, Canada, it is relevant in the concern to aquatic systems in the United States as well. (Airborne PAHs do not honor international boundaries.) The potential for leaks in an oil pipeline is of serious concern; just ask the folks in Missouri and Arkansas. However it should be noted that leaks are not the only potential environmental problem for aquatic ecosystems where the Keystone Pipeline is concerned. This oil will be refined eventually, and the United States will face similar atmospheric PAH contributions, just on the other end of the pipe.

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