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Taking The Fight Against The Tar Sands Pipeline Back To The White House

Before Occupy Wall Street, there were already headline grabbing protests about corporate intrusion in politics. On November 6, the protests against the government’s approval of the proposed pipeline to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico are headed back to Washington to confront Obama with his own environmental record.

There’s a sense in which a political insurgency is like a startup company: Everyone works incredibly hard, and you usually fail. But the learning curve is remarkable.

Six months ago, pretty much the only people who’d heard of the Keystone XL pipeline were the oil executives planning it, and the very dedicated people living along its planned 1,700-mile route who’d been doing all they could think of to fight it. And since they were in the kind of places—Indian reservations, Nebraska ranches—that the rest of the world doesn’t pay enough attention to, their fight seemed pretty hopeless.

By October, however, the pipeline had become the fiercest environmental battle in many years. The president was being greeted by hecklers everywhere he went—not Tea Party hecklers, but the exact same kids who’d worked for him in 2008, now demanding that he make good on his promises. Big donors were threatening to turn off the spigot—Michael Kieschnick, of Credo, helped turn out a thousand people for a San Francisco protest, and then told reporters that, though he’d given $60 million to progressive causes, Obama was cut off unless he nixed the pipeline. And people had put even more than money on the line. In late August, 1,253 people went to jail over two weeks in protests outside the White House, the largest display of civil disobedience in decades.

The author being arrested during the last protests at the White House. The next protest will be on November 6.

It happened, most of all, because of a calculation made by one man, NASA’s James Hansen, who said in late spring that the tar sands of Alberta, the source of this pipeline, held the second-largest pool of carbon on earth. If you could burn it all overnight, which happily you can’t, the planet’s atmospheric concentration of CO2 would rise from its current 393 parts per million to 540 parts per million. Or, less technically, it would be "essentially game over for the climate."

That became the rallying cry; people who had waited for some way to grapple with the enormous abstraction that is global warming lined up to get locked up.

But, of course, once we started looking more closely at the question, many of us started discovering other curiosities about the proposed pipeline—things that fit altogether too neatly with the worldview that erupted in lower Manhattan in mid-September.

For one thing, its backers were selling the pipe as a source of energy security—oil from friendly Christian-type people in Canada. But it turned out that the refineries on the Gulf at the end of the pipeline were located in export zones, and that much if not most of the oil was destined to be sold as diesel in Europe and Latin America.

And its proponents were selling the pipeline as a source of jobs—in some enthusiastic cases they given numbers as high as 250,000, though the more restrained contented themselves with 20,000. But the only studies of the issue had been paid for by TransCanada, the company that wanted to build the pipeline, and they were… off. They showed the pipeline creating 10 times as many jobs per mile on the American side of the border as the Canadian side, for instance. The only sober estimate came from researchers at Cornell (PDF)—they found that indeed the pipeline would create 2,350 to 4,500 jobs for the year or two it took to build, and not many after that. (That’s the point of a pipeline, really.) They also found that by raising the price of gasoline in the Midwest, the new pipe would kill as many jobs as it created. That’s right: a wash.

That wasn’t the only squirrelly study circling the pipeline, however. The State Department was charged with conducting an environmental review of the project, and it somehow concluded that its impact would be negligible. That was despite the letter from 20 of the nation’s top scientists who said it would endanger the planet—and despite the spills of tar sands oil from precursor pipelines that fouled the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone Rivers in the last year alone.

How did the State Department reach its risible conclusion? They asked TransCanada to nominate some firms to conduct the review. TransCanada provided three names, of which State helpfully picked the first, a company called Entrix. Some dedicated sleuthing (i.e., clicking on the company’s web page) uncovered that Entrix listed TransCanada as a "major client." Please don’t go around saying that nobody at Occupy Wall Street knows what they’re talking about. This is exactly what they’re talking about—the unholy wedding of corporate money and government power. Sometimes it’s the economy that crashes as a result, and sometimes it’s the atmosphere.

That corporate power may well carry the day in this fight, too. TransCanada and the oil companies have responded by hiring ever more lobbyists, but the real threat is what will happen if Obama does the right thing and blocks the pipeline (he says he’ll make a decision by year’s end). Doubtless his team is spooked by the thought of oil company money poured into campaign commercials.

So in a sense it will be a test of the president’s character. On November 6, exactly one year before the next election, we’ll descend on the White House again, this time not to get arrested but simply to encircle the place with demonstrators. (We’ve tried to figure out on Google Earth how many people it takes. Answer: many). We’ll be carrying signs, all of them emblazoned with quotes from the president in 2008: "Time to end the tyranny of oil" and "In my administration the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal." Obama was an insurgent once too—we’ll see if there’s any of that fight left in him, or if he’s gone completely D.C.

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  • Priscilla Judd

    If someone developed a replacement for oil like LENR technology - do you think the oil industry would just let the developers sell their product and take over the global oil economy? Not likely - it will take the world to demand the US Government fully develop it (NASA is already on board and aware of LENR technology) Let's get used to the idea - love the idea - grow it till everyone wants it -  LENR technology - promote and protect the environment by stopping the destruction of our planet. Make it part of your language - think bigger than the skeptics - we are clever people. Yes we can make it happen!

  • lngtrm1

    I dont disagree with your point but resolve isnt available (it's scarcer than clean energy). We need to realize we live in a very polarized and politicized time, the question is, how do we turn ourselves into a nation of greens?

    Politically? (Obama proves that doesnt work)
    Morally? (Even the churches havent embraced sustainability in any reasonable way)
    Ethically? (I think the world believes we are ethically corrupt, as do I)
    Regulatory command and control? (See Obama)
    Financially? Yes! It is the poor financial health of America and thus the world that hinders green growth. Getting to new energy sources is infinatly easier when it makes short term economic sense

  • J852

    You are cutting off your nose to spite your face.  The oil will get used.  The most economical use of that oil is to displace oil currently imported from half way around the world.

    Unless you drive an electric car (or no car at all) and do not use anything with plastic in it, you are contributing to the need to import oil.  Oil does not contribute significantly to baseload electricity generation, it gets refined into other usable products like fuel for transportation and some chemicals for plastic.

    Want to stop importing, stop using.

  • ADK_XJ

    Great piece and love Bill's point of view and passion for the topic.

    In my mind, the problem with seeing this as an either/or dilemma (below) is that it assumes there are no other answers to our energy crisis than to import more and more oil. If we resolve at the highest levels to not to import oil and create volatile entangling alliances with other companies and corporations, we free ourselves to find a solution within our borders.

    You can't use another country's decisions as a basis for our own...who remembers when "well, he did it first!" ever worked as a reasonable explanation for anything?

  • J852

    The truth is, if it doesn't go to U.S. refineries, it will go to a Canadian port and be sold to other developing economies (India-China).  How will it get there?  In a tanker.

    Canadian oil sands will be developed, with or without the U.S., and we can either choose to import energy from a trusted neighbor, with a stable economy and government... or not.  Importing from half way around the world sound better?

  • lngtrm1

    I don't see why we shouldn't ban the export of the crude, or it's resulting products. Energy security is the only thing that trumps climate change (only because it's obvious we need money and the security it brings to effect the needed environmental changes).

    Selling that oil to others is treasonous in my view, oh ya, they are Canadians, not Americans.

    If the oil doesn't go to America, it can't use American soil.