Are Tar Sands Pipelines Positive or Negative for Women?

Anybody with a stake in the status of women should oppose pipelines like Keystone XL -- and be wary of promises that pipeline proponents unfailingly break. So-called "ethical oil" harms women and communities too.
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Although delayed, the TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is almost a go despite community resistance from the Canadian border to Texas refineries. Politics will determine when the pipeline will launch. Proponents argue that the pipeline will reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. Opponents raise environmental concerns. But the discourse, dominated by national security, jobs, and pollution, mostly ignores oil extraction and pipeline impacts on women.

Exceptions include media mentioning reports of rapes and assaults near pipelines traversing North Dakota and Montana and a pro-business lobby commercial. The commercial suggests that Canadian tar sands oil is more "ethical" than Saudi Arabia's which, the clip implies "funds" women's oppression. Environmentalists quickly condemned the commercial as a PR ploy to distract attention from TransCanada's dirty oil extraction methods. The commercial also ignores the harmful gender dynamics pervading all oil industry operations. Damaging gender effects are not just an issue in Saudi Arabia but in oil producing areas around the world, including Canada. Oil extraction and pipelines everywhere not only degrade the environment, but also often precipitate increased rates of sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, prostitution, and human trafficking.

Gender Action, a watchdog group holding International Financial Institution (IFI) investments
accountable for their gender impacts, revealed IFI-financed pipelines' unaddressed harm to women abroad. Joint Gender Action-Central and Eastern Europe Bankwatch fieldwork demonstrated tragic gender impacts of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Export Oil Pipeline, a British Petroleum (BP)-led investment with financing from the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Our report Boom Times Blues documented that BTC displaced nearly 20,000 people from their homes. Female subsistence farmers lost land and crop income while facing blatant gender discrimination in hiring schemes. According to the report, BTC led to dramatic increases in prostitution, HIV, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and stillbirths.

Similarly, Gender Action's report Broken Promises spotlighted big oil-IFI investments' damaging impacts on West African women. The Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline and West African Gas Pipelines' financing consortium, including Chevron, Exxon/Mobil, the World Bank and European Investment Bank, made huge profits while failing to protect vulnerable social groups, especially women. Based on fieldwork with Friends of the Earth groups in Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo and Ghana, Broken Promises described how the pipelines destroyed women's agriculture and fishing livelihoods; increased women's poverty and dependence on men; discriminated against women in employment as men got virtually all pipeline jobs, even office positions; and sparked increased prostitution by women desperate for income.

These faraway pipelines' gender impacts are not unique. Destructive gender dynamics plague the area along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, especially around the "boom town" of Williston, North Dakota. Locals claim sexual violence against women has increased since the flood of pipeline workers into temporary housing that locals call "man camps." This has led locals to arm themselves: "the Sheriff's office reports that more people have applied for concealed weapons permits this (March) than in all of 2010." In 2009, Alberta had Canada's highest rate of domestic violence. In 2010, Fort McMurray's single women's shelter became so overcrowded that the executive director held a three-week hunger strike to draw attention to its desperate need for greater support. Local news reports cite the town as an epicenter of HIV and sexually-transmitted infection and a hotspot for syphilis, coinciding with an uptick in prostitution.

While women actually work in Canada's tar sands oil industry, according to The Dominion, women in the industry report sexual harassment, unequal pay, exclusion from higher paying jobs, and homelessness because their low income cannot cover skyrocketing housing costs triggered by the influx of oil workers.

The Canadian Green Party has linked poisoned food and water resulting from Canadian tar sands oil extraction to ominous reproductive disorders in local wildlife and rare abnormally high cancer rates 11 in the human population at large, particularly among the First Nations. Some of these claims have since been contested by a panel of Canadian experts in a 400-page study.

For all the above reasons, the continuing U.S. debate on the pros and cons of importing Canada's tar sands oil via Keystone XL must not only consider environmental, jobs and national interest concerns, but also economic and health impacts on women and communities.

Too often, oil extraction and pipelines benefit IFIs and corporations, while local communities cope with job losses and gender-based violence. Women suffer disproportionately because of their already marginalized status, gender discrimination in jobs and decision-making, and vulnerability to poverty and violence.

Anybody with a stake in the status of women should oppose pipelines like Keystone XL -- and be wary of promises that pipeline proponents unfailingly break. So-called "ethical oil" harms women and communities too.

Elaine Zuckerman is the President of Gender Action, the only organization dedicated to holding IFI investments accountable for gender impacts.

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