HAVANA TIMES, August 29 (IPS) — On the tenth day of a protest wave that has been gaining momentum since Aug. 20 and will continue until Sep. 3, nearly 300 people gathered in Lafayette Park directly across from the White House in Washington D.C., chanting, “When I say ‘tar sands’, you say ‘no!’ When I say ‘action’, you say ‘go!'”
The protest – a sustained effort against the building of a new oil pipeline connecting the tar sands of Canada’s southwestern province to several refineries around the Gulf of Mexico – is the most recent chapter in a civil disobedience campaign that has so far led to almost 400 arrests, making it the biggest environment-related action in the U.S. in a generation.
The proposed 2,753-kilometre, seven-billion-dollar pipeline, called Keystone XL, will carry 700,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil a day and supposedly bring an end to the U.S.’s dependence on hostile oil providers like Venezuela.
However, the project has raised the ire of an increasingly vocal green movement that views the pipeline – the largest outside of Russia or China – as a powerful catalyst for action against President Barack Obama, who has thus far failed to make good on campaign promises to his green voter base to lower carbon emissions and reverse the fuel-hungry trends of previous administrations.
Appearing on TV fresh from a two-day stint in D.C.’s Central Cell Block prison, Bill McKibben, author and founder of the environmental organization 350.org, said Monday, “For once, the president has the opportunity to do the right thing without having to involve Congress.
Since the pipeline crosses national boundaries, it requires a presidential finding to prove that the project is in our best national interests.
“This will be the purest test of Obama’s promise that ‘With my presidency the rise of oceans will begin to slow and the planet will begin to heal’,” McKibben added.
He quoted James Hansen, a NASA climatologist who said earlier this month that approval of the pipeline would be “game over” for planet earth.
On Aug. 3, Hansen, along with 20 other leading U.S. climate scientists, penned a letter to the president that read, “It’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy and leave the tar sands in the ground – as scientists we can say categorically that [the Keystone XL pipeline] is not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.”
The tar sands in Alberta’s oil-rich wilderness are home to the world’s most carbon-laden crude, and environmentalists in both the U.S. and Canada have long warned that the grimy process of extracting and refining it would cause unprecedented and irreversible levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
As far back as 2008, climatologists noted that producing one barrel of oil from oil sands is “a water- and energy-intensive process that emits three times more greenhouse gases than production of conventional light or medium crude oil.”
Recent climate research shows that the tar sands form of crude oil, also called bitumen, could release an estimated 150 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions every year – more than the collective annual emissions of 85 percent of the world’s countries.
In addition, scientists say that transporting the oil southwards through the U.S. heartland towards refineries in Oklahoma and Texas would wreak havoc on bird habitats, devastate the environment along the pipeline’s prospective route, threaten the supply of freshwater in the Ogallala aquifer as the pipe crosses the Great Plains, and severely jeopardize the safety and autonomy of tribal lands lying between Alberta and Texas.
According to previous reports by IPS environmental journalist Stephen Leahy, the proposed pipeline could also be used to pump water from the Ogallala aquifer – one of the world’s largest – to the badly parched states in the arid southwest, causing pipeline industry officials to warn that Keystone can be easily used to transport water from a source that is already being overdrawn.
Environmentalists are also fearful of spills, given that “Keystone 1, a smaller pipeline owned by TransCanada, the same 40-billion-dollar company that wants to build Keystone XL, has recorded 12 spills in its first year of operation – the latest in May 2010 in North Dakota, involving some 80,000 liters of tar sands crude,” Leahy reported.
Though the project has yet to clear several bureaucratic hurdles before construction begins, the State Department all but green- lighted the operation on Friday afternoon when Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of the bureau of oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, told the press via teleconference that “there would be no serious impacts to resources along the pipe’s corridor”.
While admitting that several Indigenous cultural resources and plant and wildlife habitats could be “adversely affected”, Jones reassured the public that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Keystone XL project outlined measures to overcome any potential harm to the environment.
However, neither the scientists nor the protesters have been assuaged by these assertions, choosing instead to take their cues from visible ecological crises and to use their bodies as a new kind of currency against the financial might of oil companies like TransCanada, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil, which have all been lobbying hard to preserve their investments in oil sands production.
In between rallying the crowds and chanting slogans outside the White House today, Reverend Paul Mayer, co founder of the Climate Crisis Coalition, told IPS, “I’m here because climate change is one of the greatest moral, political cultural and spiritual issues facing this planet now for both humans and non-humans, and drilling the tar sands is going to bring disaster much closer. The rising seas, the unbearable temperatures, drought, hunger, and displacement by the millions of the poor and powerless – all of those things come closer to us with talk of this pipeline.”
“I worked with Dr. [Martin Luther] King during the Civil Rights Movement,” Mayer added. “He taught me that sometimes you have to break the law in order to preserve a higher one and today we are risking arrest in order to send a very clear message to our president that he cannot take his reelection for granted and count on the support of people like ourselves unless he keeps the promises he made on the night of his election.”