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How I learned to start worrying and hate the tar sands pipeline

Bill McKibben arrested at White House
Hopey changey: Wearing an Obama '08 button, Bill McKibben gets arrested to encourage the president to keep his campaign promise to protect the climate. Photo: tarsandsaction via Flickr.

I'm their target audience. I already care about climate change. And I don't like Big Oil. Yet, it took Bill McKibben and more than 200 other activists getting arrested at the White House for me to finally care about the tar sands pipeline.

Before that, I had five reasons to leave this particular issue to somebody else:

  1. Pipelines are boring. With the Environmental Protection Agency reporting up to 24,000 oil spills each year, plenty of crude must mess up dry land, but it lacks the drama of an offshore disaster like the Exxon Valdez or the Deepwater Horizon. Meanwhile, TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, got a similar one approved by the US government in 2009 with hardly a peep from greenies. So this time, aren't climate activists just using what's essentially a commodity piece of equipment in the oil industry as an excuse to revive their movement after the failure of cap-and-trade in 2010?
  2. It's not in my backyard. Like the 99.9% of Americans who don't live in one of the rural areas that the pipeline would cross on its route from Alberta to the Gulf coast, it's easy to dismiss it as a NIMBY issue for Nebraskans or people on the Gulf (who, bless 'em, always do seem to get the short end of the oily stick). Where I live in Appalachia, we've got our own local issues with dirty energy to get upset about, from mountaintop removal coal mining to hydrofracking gas from the Marcellus Shale.
  3. High costs alone will kill tar sands. As a peak oil guy, I know that tar sands have a terrible energy return or EROEI. Even if they build the pipeline now, tar sands oil delivers such a poor energy return that sooner or later the industry will realize it's just not worth the trouble of digging up the bitumen, processing it and then pumping it out of Canada. Then, the companies will shut down the pits in Alberta and either rip out the pipeline or just let it rust away on the prairie, as harmless as a '63 Ford pickup on cinder blocks.
  4. Will it make much difference to the climate? NASA's James Hansen, who clashed with his bosses in the Bush Administration and isn't afraid to hold Obama to account, warns that developing all the oil in the Athabasca tar sands will mean "game over" for the climate. But if America doesn't buy the tar sands oil, won't the Canadians just build a pipeline to their Pacific coast so they can sell the oil to China, releasing the carbon anyway?
  5. Terrible name. Keystone XL Pipeline is dishwater dull. Couldn't they have called it something like the Highway to Hell, the Klimate Killer or, a choice for the key 5- to 8-year old demographic, the Poop-line?

Arrested development

So I have to admit that it did take McKibben, along with Gus Speth (who advised Jimmy Carter on the environment and co-founded the NRDC) and lots of ordinary folks from around the country, getting thrown in the pokey to make me take notice.

Since I'm not lining up to get arrested, they're braver and more committed than I am, and I'm awed by their courage. I'm also impressed by their organization, recruiting protesters from around the country and then dressing them not in tie-dyed T shirts and Free Tibet caps but in suits and ties and skirts and blouses, eschewing the hippie aesthetic for the all-American cred of the Civil Rights movement. Their talking points are pretty tight too -- just check out this Tar Sands Action video.

Then, I was pissed off that the Park Police decided to go hard on the demonstrators, holding them in jail for 48 hours despite a previous understanding with McKibben's group to play the usual catch-and-release. Even worse, the officers' orders may have come from the White House. Is Obama trying to send a signal to the green movement to back off because he just wants to approve the pipeline and play nice with Big Oil, environmental voters (and the environment!) be damned?

That would be the same Obama who promised, when he was nominated, that his administration would ensure “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

And all the while, McKibben had his people wear Obama '08 buttons to show that they supported the guy. At least, the original hopey-changey version we all voted for back in the day.

So if all these protesters -- and they're not just the usual twentysomething activists, but also soccer moms in their fifties too -- thought it was worth getting arrested to stop the pipeline, then I thought maybe I should take another look at the arguments against it. As 350.org puts it:

You probably know that building the Keystone XL pipeline is a terrible idea. The oil it will carry from Canada’s tar sands will travel all the way from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Think: oil spilling all over America's heartland. Think: way more CO2 all over the atmosphere, since the tar sands are among the most carbon-intensive of all the fossil fuels.

Why it's the keystone of disaster

Tar sands mining can already be seen from space, which makes it an international environmental crime that goes far beyond Alberta and Canada. And if that pipeline gets built, once the first barrel of oil flows through it, we risk soaking thousands of American acres with oil so gooey that the federal government has admitted it doesn't know how to clean it up. And that's an issue that goes far beyond Nebraska or the Texas Gulf coast.

None of this will provide any meaningful energy to consumers, since the net energy of tar sands is so poor. But that doesn't mean the tar-sands-and-pipeline Ponzi scheme couldn't limp along for ten or twenty years on taxpayer subsidies, Enron-style accounting and industry hype that all hide what a boondoggle it is.

That's plenty of time for a bad spill. And plenty of time and resources wasted that America could be investing in energy ideas that really work, like installing solar panels or insulating houses instead of feeding Big Oil's bottomless greed for short-term profits.

So, to my peak oil and homesteading friends, who think that the imminent collapse of industrial capitalism is a good enough excuse to be apathetic about pretty much any issue of national politics at all, I'm not letting you off the hook on this one.

And even if the pipeline goes through, China (or any other country with enough demand) could still get the oil. Since oil is an internationally traded commodity, the oil companies can sell it to whomever they want. With the Panama Canal due to be widened in the next few years, larger tankers will be able to call at Gulf ports in the future to ship oil back to Asia.

If activists can stop the pipeline to the US, the carbon may stay in the ground a bit longer. That would give the climate movement some breathing room to try other tactics to slow down tar sands development or stop it entirely (which looks like a tall order now, but could be possible in the future if activists continue to get public opinion on their side). In a coup for McKibben, the New York Times ran an editorial this week against the pipeline, saying if it's built, "greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector as a whole will rise by nearly one-third from 2005 to 2020 — even as other sectors are reducing emissions."

America vs. Big Oil, again

Tar Sands Action web site

While I'm into saving energy as much as Amory Lovins is, I know you can't just fight Big Oil by using less of their product or by staging some kind of private boycott. Using less oil is good in itself, but won't do much to stop the Keystone XL. If you don't fill up your tank this week, somebody else will fill theirs, whether they're in Cleveland, Chongqqing or Chennai, creating yet more demand for oil.

So we can't just approach this from the demand side. We need to attack the supply side.

I hope the brave protesters will keep on kicking Big Oil's ass and keep on relentlessly dogging Obama about the pipeline. He alone will decide this one; the approval doesn't need to go through Congress, so the president can't blame Boehner or Michele Bachmann or the Tea Party. Activists are absolutely right to hold Obama's feet to the fire. Let it be a hot summer and an even hotter fall for him until he says he won't approve this poisonous pipeline of satanic slurry.

For the rest of us, here's what 350.org says we can do to help:

  1. Sign the petition to President Obama to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline -- they've already past their initial goal of 35,000 signatures and are hoping to add as many names as possible before giving it to White House officials on September 3rd.
  2. Send in a solidarity message or photo to the people taking action at the White House.
  3. Take part in Moving Planet -- a worldwide climate rally on September 24 -- and "move beyond all fossil fuels in the loudest, most beautiful way possible."

-- Erik Curren, Transition Voice

Editorial Notes: Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group.

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