Tar sands oil: an ongoing crisis

Adam Kranz

I was arrested in front of the White House with 164 other people on Sept. 2. Over our two weeks of protest, 1,262 people were arrested, making this the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of the environmental movement.

The circumstances that brought us together are unique. Barack Obama, the president who promised that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” has the opportunity to begin fulfilling that promise — for Obama alone will determine whether the Keystone XL pipeline is constructed.

The pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries and ports in Texas. The investment it would represent would ensure that exploitation of the tar sands expands.

The tar sands are among the greatest humanitarian crimes of the modern world. It is hard to imagine a project that does more lasting harm at every stage of its operation. Indigenous forests in Alberta are scraped away, revealing the tar sands beneath.

Prodigious amounts of clean water are poisoned in the extraction process and subsequently returned to the land in tailing ponds. From there, toxins wash downstream, poisoning indigenous communities. Representatives who spoke to us in D.C. claimed they couldn’t remember the last time a member of their community died of natural causes — barring accidents, everyone dies from cancer.

Once the oil is extracted, it must be sent to refineries. So far, this has been done using several pipelines, including the Keystone XL’s predecessor, Keystone. Keystone has spilled 10 times and exploded once during its year of operation — approximately once a month. The implications of this fact for the Ogallala aquifer, which lies directly under much of the Keystone XL’s proposed route, are as severe as they are obvious. The dire health consequences suffered by the urban poor living near the refineries are also easily imagined.

When tar sands oil is burned, it enters the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Its contribution is significant: As the second largest remaining pool of oil on Earth, if even most of it is burned, it will mean “game over,” according to NASA climate scientist James Hansen. That is, catastrophic climate change will be inevitable.

It is true that there will be jobs created by the construction of the pipeline. There will be plenty of work rebuilding the cities destroyed by the storms spawned by climate change. There will be jobs providing medical care to cancer victims along the pipeline’s route and downstream of the tar sands. There will even be jobs digging graves for the victims. In the long run, these jobs will not build a better tomorrow for anyone but those who own the oil companies. There are more productive, less ghastly ways to put Americans to work.

This may seem melodramatic. Yet this kind of pragmatic cause-and-effect logic is necessary to bring home the fact that this is not an abstraction, that people are already dying every day because of the tar sands and because of climate change. While the means may be more circuitous, genocide by cancer and ecological assault is not morally different from genocide by firing squad.

To those who view the tar sands as an energy security solution: know that the Keystone XL pipeline is explicitly designed to ship oil from a tax-free Foreign Trade Zone in Texas to Europe and Latin America.

Among the six oil companies that have bought advance contracts to ship oil through the pipeline, only Valero is American. The others include Shell and the Saudi Arabian government. Canadians and Americans would be sacrificing their health, their clean water, their land and their future to subsidize tax-free profits for foreign oil companies.

Despite the strong and growing movement to stop the tar sands, the odds are still against us. For all intents and purposes, the oil industry has the most money in the world. Yet while the chances of victory may be small, defeat is certain if we don’t act. With the stakes this high, apathy and complacency are no longer options. We must stand up and fight. We must draw that glimmer of victory into being and pursue it with resolve.

Adam Kranz will be presenting on this issue and his experience Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Just Act Natural, and also Saturday, Oct. 1 at 12:30 p.m. in the Kraemer Room of the WCC.