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.
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