In what is sure to be a contentious issue for months to come, opponents of the Keystone Pipeline project are gearing up for a fight. From the protests on Parliament Hill on September 26 to the ones in front of the White House where several prominent actors, chiefs and environmentalists were arrested in early September, it is obvious that this issue is not going away.

The Keystone Pipeline is a system to transport synthetic crude oil from the oil sands in northeastern Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, and eventually, when finished, the US Gulf Coast. Politicians on both sides of the border have been very vocal about the project, saying the pipeline is a choice between jobs and the environment. With a weak US economy, President Barack Obama may have no choice but to green light the project.

Most environmentalists fear another Deepwater Horizon-like oil spill, which dumped about five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and affected the lives of thousands in the fishing industry. The spill was devastating to the local ecosystem and it will take years, if ever, for the area to recover. The Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, through which the Keystone Pipeline will travel, is a main source of water for farmlands in the Midwest. In a letter to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman said the State Department should deny the permit on the grounds that the pipeline could put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk.

“This resource is the lifeblood of Nebraska’s agriculture industry,” Heineman stated in the letter. “I am concerned that the proposed pipeline will potentially have detrimental effects on this valuable natural resource and Nebraska’s economy.”

The State Department said recently that an environmental review of a possible oil spill from the pipeline would only affect a limited area in Nebraska’s Sand Hills region, which is part of the High Plains Aquifer.

Regional Chief Bill Erasmus of the Assembly of First Nations recently spoke about the project and what it means for First Nations in Canada.  “I live in Yellowknife about 800 miles from where the tar sands are and we are already feeling the effects.”

Erasmus added that job creation would be at the bottom of the economic ladder (e.g. grunt work) and that the jobs would not last because once the pipeline is put in the ground it can take care of itself.  “The tar sands are developing at an accelerated rate and they’re looking to expand.”

For every barrel of oil produced, they use four or five barrels of water, said Erasmus.  “People can no longer eat the fish or drink the water, it’s affecting their whole way of life.”

When asked about increasing health problems occurring in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, Erasmus said, “Fort Chippeyan is the first community downstream and they have had abnormal cancers that are very rare, they have had many people get sick and dying. The doctor working on it is attributing that directly to the tar sands even though both the provincial and federal governments deny it.”

Last year the federal government destroyed a report on the tar sands and its impact on water systems in Alberta. Erasmus is not surprised by that and does not know if the Harper government has a plan for real sustainability, which worries him and other environmentalists.

Lastly, Erasmus added that protests like the one which happened on Parliament Hill and in front of the White House will only grow louder and could become a hot-button issue come election time. When Obama makes his decision on the pipeline, he will have to choose between jobs and the health of the planet and its people. I can’t help but wonder: are we headed for another Deepwater Horizon disaster, and if so, how many lives will be affected this time around?

Irkar Beljaars can be heard on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday on CKUT 90.3 FM. Find him on Facebook and Twitter (mohawk_voice).