Obama, Fucking Light Bulbs, and the Tar Sands Protests

‘Well, the truth is…we can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective’.” –Barack Obama, 2008

I’ll admit that when I first read this quote (reference here), back during the campaign year, it was Obama’s use of the vernacular language that made me take notice.  And when Newsweek reported it, in their tell-all, behind-the-scenes report on the campaign, it didn’t get a lot of attention, no doubt because of that same language.  Which is a shame, because in the content of that quote may lie the most important thing he’s ever said regarding what is arguably the central problem of our age.  It’s not the F-word that matters here–it’s the C-word.

I was thinking about our need for collective action quite a bit during the recent  Tar Sands Action I participated in, where more than 1200 citizens in opposition to the continued exploitation of the Canadian Tar Sands were arrested in front of the White House fence (see my previous post).  Clearly, all of the many people from across the US and Canada had not bicycled to Washington for this event, and I’m sure most of the protesters were very much aware of this seeming hypocrisy.  (In the claustrophobia-inducing police wagon I was in after being arrested, much time was spent in speculation about just how much gasoline was being burned by the van as it idled for an hour or more outside the place where we were to be processed…)

The previous evening, at a rally for the protest, a  wonderfully inspiring speaker had asked the crowd, “Are we going to buy Tar Sands Oil?”  “NO!!” the crowd shouted back in unison–followed by a small “yes” from the back of the room.  And that “yes” voice was right.  The Tar Sands already are the single largest source of US oil imports, and only those of us who had both bicycled to the protest and were living completely oil-free lifestyles could have honestly said “no”.  We have no choice but to do that, to do so many things each day that we don’t believe in, because of the way our society is structured.  Barack Obama was right–we need collective action to change that, to make another world possible.  The protest itself was a beautiful example of collective action–and of thousands of people not allowing their good-liberal guilt to stop them from speaking out, and demanding that President Obama act on behalf of the collectivity of all of us.  Clearly, he gets it that that is what needs to happen.  It is all of our jobs to give him the courage he needs to make it so.

Civil Disobedience and Climate Change, or What I Did on my Labor Day Weekend

Photo Credit: Josh Lopez
Dear friends,
What you’re looking at is a scene from the last day of the largest US collective civil disobedience action in this century.  I am just out of view to the left of the picture, and the White House is just out of view to the right (in more ways than one).  More than 1,200 of us were arrested in front of the White House over the two weeks of the protest, which was led by writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben and author and journalist Naomi Klein.  The target of our action was the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which will bring oil 1500 miles, from the vast Athabasca Tar Sands mines in Alberta, Canada to coastal Texas for refining.
Photo Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood

Why is this pipeline such a problem?  From a letter signed by all the organizers:

“To call this project a horror is serious understatement. The tar sands have wrecked huge parts of Alberta, disrupting ways of life in indigenous communities—First Nations communities in Canada, and tribes along the pipeline route in the U.S. have demanded the destruction cease. The pipeline crosses crucial areas like the Oglalla Aquifer where a spill would be disastrous—and though the pipeline companies insist they are using ‘state of the art’ technologies that should leak only once every 7 years, the precursor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times in the past year. These  local impacts alone would be cause enough to block such a plan. But the Keystone Pipeline would also be a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place to which we are all indigenous.

As the climatologist Jim Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate “the principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, he added, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.” The Keystone pipeline is an essential part of the game.”

Photo credit: Josh Lopez
(Watching as Naomi Klein is arrested.  We all applauded as each person was led away.
It took several hours each day to arrest everyone.)
There are other impacts as well–the eventual deforestation of an area the size of the state of Florida, the huge and ever-growing reservoir of toxic sludge.  But the climate change issue is the one that was impossible for me to ignore.  Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil–the dirtiest  fuel, even–in the world.  Because of its heavy, carbon-rich nature, and because large amounts of fossil fuels (much of it hydrofracked natural gas) need to be burned in the process of converting the tar into oil, it is even worse than coal in terms of its overall carbon footprint.  And the sheer amount of it–the Canadian tar sands comprise the second-largest oil deposits in the world, behind only those in Saudi Arabia–means that it is crucial that they remain in the ground.


Photo Credit:  National Geographic
Will stopping the Keystone pipeline stop the exploitation of the Tar Sands?  Unfortunately, no.  Today, even without the pipeline, they are the single largest source of US oil imports, via tankers and trucks. And certainly the oil companies are looking for other outlets.  But it’s possible that stopping the pipeline would seriously retard further development of the tar sands for years, and would give us more time to develop sustainable sources of energy and to move toward eventually shutting the tar sands down altogether.
Photo Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood
The issue of permitting or denying the pipeline is one that can be decided by the State Department, and ultimately by President Obama–this is one thing that Congress has no say over. Currently the U.S. Department of State is accepting comments on its recently released Environmental Impact Statement, which incredibly(!) concluded that there would only be minimal impact on the environment. Feel free to add your comments here, and thank you so much for whatever you might feel moved to do.
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Links:
The group that organized the protests: Tar Sands Action
A great clip of Bill McKibben debating a Manhattan Institute speaker (who seemed to have no argument other than “we need the oil”) on The Newshour:  Tar Sands Pipeline Plan Renews Energy vs. Environment Debate – YouTube
Tar Sands fact sheet from the NRDC:  http://www.nrdc.org/land/files/TarSandsPipeline4pgr.pdf
And finally, a long but very good discussion from last year, with NASA climatologist James Hansen, Naomi Klein (who I think is just great in this), and Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Indigenous Environmental Network.  All three ended up getting arrested last week. Climate Reality – YouTube