Families across the middle swath of our country — from North Dakota to Louisiana — have a disturbing question to ask themselves: “Do we want a leaky pipeline pumping 800,000 barrels of oil a day running through our community?”

The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would transport tar sands — a mixture of sand, clay, water and a dense tar-like form of petroleum, from the Boreal forests of Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico region — is a 1,700-mile time bomb that either will be activated or defused in the coming days.

The pipeline would travel directly across the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground aquifer in North America, which provides drinking water and irrigation for much of the plains region. The thick raw “bitumen” tar sands are mixed with a volatile natural gas, making a highly corrosive, acidic and unstable combination — not something you’d want flowing in enormous quantities anywhere near where you sit down for dinner with your family.

The fact that the predecessor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times this past year should be enough to make anyone question the intelligence of this scheme. Can farmers, families, cities and ecosystems really afford an on-land spill similar to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

But this is a problem that should worry us all. The threat to immediate public health is compounded by the threat the tar sands pose to our planet’s atmosphere. Bizarre weather patterns are playing out the climate change crisis — Irene, record floods and droughts around the world, freak tornados and wildfires. The atmosphere is changing, and the accelerating use of fossil fuels is a major driver.

The tar sands represent the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, second only to the oil remaining under the desert of Saudi Arabia. If we actually go through with clear-cutting enormous tracts of Boreal forests, processing the thick tar with steam and water, mixing it with natural gas and transporting, refining and burning it, it would take the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere from nearly 400 parts per million to 600 parts per million, something leading scientists have been sounding the alarm about for years.

As James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist, put it, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate, “unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, “If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”

The project developers want us to believe we need these tar sands — that there is no alternative. They want us to forget that the solar industry employs more Americans than U.S. steel production, and that entrepreneurs nationwide, like myself and my team at Solar Mosaic, are finding creative ways to help communities prosper through clean energy.

Because of their belief in better alternatives to our energy needs, 1,200 people have been arrested these past few weeks while peacefully protesting in front of the White House. These are people of every generation — religious leaders, union workers and business people. Actors Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah joined what has become the largest environmental civil disobedience in a generation.

The two individuals with exclusive power to stop construction of the pipeline are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Because the pipeline would cross the border, the secretary of state and, ultimately, the president must sign a certificate of “national interest” for the development to begin.

If jobs are the president’s big concern, let’s not set the planet on fire for what the State Department estimates would be only 5,000 to 6,000 jobs. With even a modest carbon fee, the president could raise enough money to support an Apollo-style program to rebuild America’s lagging infrastructure and really catalyze transition to a clean-energy economy.

Your phone call this week will actually make a difference. Even if we can’t protest in front of the White House, we can step up and speak out.

Our water, our health, our environment and the natural beauty of a 1,700-mile swath of America need you.

Parish is president of Solar Mosaic, a solar energy marketplace, and author of the forthcoming book, “Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World.”

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