Line 9, the tar sands, and humanity’s future

April 18, 2013

On April 7, I spoke to a meeting of about 150 people, organized by Toronto East End Against Line 9. This video of my talk was made by Alexander Knight for Poor Man’s Video. The text I spoke from follows the video.

Don’t miss John Riddell’s report on this meeting.
More video of the meeting will be posted on Leftstreamed on April 14.


Prepared text of talk by Ian Angus, Toronto, April 7 2013

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak today

Often, at meetings about the environment, someone says that we must “think global, but act local.” That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do. It’s not always clear that local projects can affect the growing global environmental crisis, and even when there is a clear link, it is seldom easy to decide which local projects should our priority.

I’d like to suggest that the campaign against Line 9 is an exception. This is a project with profound local, national and global implications. By resisting the Line 9 pipeline through Toronto, you are directly engaged in the fight for humanity’s future.

The local impacts of pipelines are very clear. Just last weekend, dozens of families in the small town of Mayflower Arkansas were forced to abandon their homes when an Exxon pipeline burst, spilling thousands of gallons of Alberta bitumen into their yards.

There are untold numbers of similar stories. Between 1990 and 2005, there were 4,679 pipeline spills in Alberta alone. That’s close to one every week.

But that is just one side of the story. The spills are caused by system failures. Even more frightening are the dangers that result from the system working properly. When a pipeline breaks, it harms the immediate area. When it doesn’t break, it delivers destruction to the entire world.

Speaking to a UK business audience shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 2006, Stephen Harper announced his government’s intention of making Canada an “energy superpower.” Canada, he said, was already the “fifth largest energy producer in the world,” ranking third in gas production, seventh in oil and first in both hydro-electric and uranium – but that is “just the beginning,” because “an ocean of oil-soaked sand lies under the muskeg of northern Alberta.”

“The oil sands are the second largest oil deposit in the world, bigger than Iraq, Iran or Russia; exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. Digging the bitumen out of the ground, squeezing out the oil and converting it into synthetic crude is a monumental challenge.

“It requires vast amounts of capital, Brobdingnagian technology, and an army of skilled workers. In short, it is an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”

What Mr. Harper didn’t say is that unlike building pyramids or walls, “squeezing out the oil and converting it into synthetic crude,” is massively destructive. As University of Waterloo professor Thomas Homer Dixon wrote in the New York Times last week:

“tar sands production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities. It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production. It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles.”

That is appalling enough, but the damage goes far beyond the contamination of Northern Alberta. The Alberta tar sands contain more than twice as much carbon dioxide as been emitted by all of the oil burned in all of human history to date. As climate scientist James Hansen wrote recently, if the tar sands are fully mined, “it will be game over for the climate.”

At global climate negotiations, it has been agreed that we must keep global warming to less than 2 degrees to avoid catastrophic climate change. Many scientists think that figure is too high. But if the tar sands are fully exploited, there is no chance of staying below 2 degrees. No chance at all.

As Hansen writes, burning all the tar sands oil will mean that:

“concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Ruined lands, poisoned rivers, millions upon millions of deaths. That’s the price the world will pay if Canada continues its drive to be an energy superpower.

Five years in succession, international environmentalists have named Canada as the country that did the most to “delay, stall, and otherwise disrupt” negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. During the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, 400 non-governmental organizations declared that Canada had the worst emission control record of any industrialized country.

And in an act of appalling hypocrisy and cynicism, in December 2011 the government announced Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol – but only after attending a meeting of the signatories where Canada again sabotaged any move by other countries towards concrete emissions-reduction plans. The government knew in advance that they would leave – they attended only to wreck the process.

Today, most Canadian oil exports go to the United States, but there is growing concern in the oil industry that the U.S. may not be a wholly reliable customer. Canada’s conventional oil production is falling fast – between 1990 and 2005 it dropped from 1200 to 1050 thousand barrels a day, and is expected to be less than 600 thousand barrels a day by 2020, so all production growth is coming from the tar sands. That means that U.S. environmentalists’ campaigns against dirty oil pose a direct threat to Canadian oil profits.

The Obama government’s decision to delay the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would take tar sands bitumen to the southern U.S. for refining, confirmed the Tories’ unease about relying on U.S. markets.

The Harper government is actively lobbying U.S. politicians to okay Keystone and to block any laws that might discriminate against dirty oil from the north, but it is also seeking new customers. As Harper said in Davos last year, “we will make it a national priority to ensure we have the capacity to export our energy products beyond the United States.”

The Northern Gateway Pipeline in the west, and the Line 9 project in the east, are essential elements in that plan. That’s why our campaign against Line 9 is an essential element of the global effort to save the climate.

As James Hansen writes, “Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil fuel emissions and to nearly phase out fossil fuel emissions by the middle of the century.”

Instead of contributing to that process, Canada’s government is actively promoting increased fossil fuel production. When the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is so close to the level at which catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable, a drive to double oil production by 2020 can only be labelled a crime against the planet and humanity.

Climate change is runaway train, and our children are on the track. The fossil fuel industry, with our government’s support, is feverishly shoveling in more coal – or, we might say, more bitumen.

The fight to stop Line 9 is a local campaign, but it is also a vital part of the global campaign to pull the emergency brake and stop that runaway train.

Ian Angus

Ian Angus is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate & Capitalism. His recent books include Facing the Anthropocene and A Redder Shade of Green, both published by Monthly Review Press.

Tags: climate change, tar sands bitumen, tar sands production