Tens of Thousands Protest Tar Sands Pipeline
By Barry Sheppard
Between 30-40,000 people marched and rallied in Washington, D.C. February 17 to demand that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry reject the building of what is known as the Keystone XL pipeline.
There were sympathy demonstrations in many other cities. The one in San Francisco drew 3-4,000.
The proposed pipeline would carry extremely dirty tar sands oil a thousand miles from Canada south across the United States to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined.
Obama had postponed making a decision on the XL pipeline until after the November election, in face of mass opposition. He is scheduled to rule on it soon. Because it is an international project with Canada, the Secretary of State must rule on it also.
The demonstration was organized by the Sierra Club and 350.org, and supported by others. This marked a step forward for the normally staid and conservative Sierra Club.
The 350.org has been an activist organization around climate change. It takes its name from the position of many scientists that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the upper limit if we are to be able to control global warming.
The stakes are high.
Speaking at the rally former “green jobs czar” for Obama, Van Jones, said, “Well, this is it. This is the last minute in the last quarter of the biggest most important game humanity has ever played. One thing I know having worked in this town, the simple maxim, if you don’t fight for what you want you deserve what you get…”
Addressing Obama, Jones continued, “The decision to let this pipeline come through America is the most fateful decision you’ll ever make, Mr. President.
“It would be like jabbing a dirty needle into this country from Canada. It would be like lighting a fuse on a carbon bomb.”
Before the march, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote, “If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 part per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with similar temperature.”
McKibben also spoke the rally. To loud cheers he greeted the many activists who have been fighting on many fronts, from fracking to a particularly damaging form of coal mining that entails blasting away mountain tops, pouring the debris into rivers and streams.
He lauded the students present from 256 colleges and universities, who are campaigning for their schools to divest from fossil fuel industries.
“Our theme,” he said, “has to be when you are in a hole, stop digging. Above all, stop the Keystone pipeline [cheers}. The president can do that with a stroke of the pen….We’ll follow him and the Secretary of State around the country. And as this spring comes we will unite that fight with the other holes we are digging, too. And as the summer comes on, this movement will just pick up.
“I want everybody to circle those days toward the end of July that are on average the hottest each year. We are going to make them hot politically, too.”
Also addressing the rally were representatives of native Americans from Canada and the U.S., who have seen their lands ravaged by the fossil fuel industries. Many such lands will be traversed by the XL pipeline.
One of these was Chief Jaqueline Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation in British Columbia, Canada. She is part of an alliance to stop the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project, which will bring tar sands oil to the Pacific coast of Canada, to be exported the Asia.
This alliance has brought together Canadian First Nation peoples with other Canadians. “Never in my life have I seen white and native work together until now [cheers]. Thank you Enbridge for doing this work for me.”
Also speaking was Casey Camp of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma in the U.S. “We’re suffering environmental genocide as a result of ConocoPhillips refinery being on our land….And now Keystone XL are disrupting our lives as well as the lives of our relatives up in the northern country [Canada]. And we’re here to make a difference.”
Michael Klare wrote an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, titled “the Strategic Importance of Keystone XL.” He lists the major threats to the environment if Obama approves the pipeline, including the danger of leaks given the highly corrosive nature of the material.
“Extracting and processing tar sands is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, far more so than most conventional oil drilling operations. Considerable energy is needed to dig the sludge out of the ground… then, additional energy is needed for the various upgrading processes. The environmental risks involved are enormous (even leaving aside the vast amounts of greenhouse gasses that the whole process will pump into the atmosphere)….”
Vast amounts of water are needed, which “become contaminated with toxic substances. Once used, they cannot be returned to any water source that might end up in drinking supplies…. All of this and the expenses involved mean that the multibillion-dollar investments needed to launch a tar sands operation can only pay off if the final product fetches a healthy price in the marketplace.”
Klare explains that’s where the pipelines come in. Canada does not have the refining ability to process the stuff. It must be exported. One proposed pipeline is the one to the Pacific that Chief Thomas referred to. Another would go to the Canadian Atlantic, and there are stiff protests about that one, too. But the main one would be the XL pipeline to the specialized U.S. refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.
Without the XL pipeline, there would not be enough capacity for the massive output the big oil companies are planning. Already ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell have invested heavily in the tar sands operations.
It follows that there is enormous pressure from the industry and within the Canadian and U.S. governments to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
“The stakes in this battle could not be higher,” Klare writes. “If Keystone XL fails to win the President’s approval, the industry will certainly grow at a far slower pace than forecast and possibly witness the failure of costly ventures, resulting in an industry-wide contraction. If approved, however, production will soar and global warming will occur at an even faster rate than previously projected. In this way, a Presidential decision will have an unexpectedly decisive impact on all our lives.”