For Protesters, Keystone Pipeline Is Line In Tar Sand

September 1, 2011
By Richard Harris
NPR: All Things Considered

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Dozens of environmental activists showed up in front of the White House Thursday to get arrested in a peaceful protest against a proposed oil pipeline that would cut across the American Midwest.

Organizers said that over the past 10 days, about 800 people have been handcuffed and bused off to a police station in this ongoing action.

At issue is a proposed pipeline that would connect oil resources in Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas coast. The 1,700-mile long Keystone XL, as it's called, would help our friendly northern neighbor expand development in one of the largest, but dirtiest, sources of oil on the planet. It's bound up in hardened formations called tar sands, and it's not easy to extract.

The State Department has issued an environmental review giving the transnational Keystone pipeline a green light. Some state governors and high-profile climate scientists say building the pipeline would be a mistake.

The Obama administration says it will decide by the end of the year whether to approve this pipeline. And environmental groups are making that decision a test of the administration's resolve to move away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources of energy.

A Message To The President

And that's where the White House protests come in.

"We're trying to send a message to Barack Obama and America that we got to get off the dirty energy treadmill, because catastrophe is looming if we don't,"said Jim Sconyers, 67, who came in from West Virginia to take part in the protest.

He had $100 in his pocket, which is the fine he expected to pay once he gets arrested at the highly choreographed sit-in. He said tar sands are much worse for the environment than what we pump out of the ground elsewhere.

"Oh, my God, it's tremendously dirtier," said Sconyers. "The sands themselves are, you know, it's sand, listen to the name — it's not just liquid oil that comes flowing out like in a regular oil well." The tar sands get cooked with natural gas burners to liberate the oil, so producing the oil adds emissions to the atmosphere.

Liz Barratt-Brown, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, was also at the protest. She said that emissions from producing oil for the Keystone XL pipeline would be about the same as building seven new coal-fired power plants.

"When you think about bringing a pipeline in that's the equivalent of seven new plants, I actually think that's quite significant," she said.

A Unique Geologic Treasure

Of course, the Earth's fate doesn't hinge on the emissions equivalent of a few additional coal plants. But activist Bill McKibben, who helped organize this protest, isn't just thinking about what the Keystone XL pipline would deliver. He's concerned that if the pipeline goes ahead, the oil-sands industry would really take off and exploit the vast Canadian deposits.

"This pipeline is a bad idea. The tar sands at the far end of it are the second biggest pool of carbon on the Earth, and if we burn them, if we burn them in a big way, as NASA's Jim Hansen said, it's essentially game over for the climate," he said. Hansen is a NASA climate scientist who was among the protesters arrested this week.

For McKibben, this really is the moment of truth, akin to what Brazil did 15 years ago, when it took serious steps to preserve the Amazon rain forest.

"That was a unique biological treasure," he said. "North America has a unique geological treasure: this tar sands formation. Why don't we have the same kind of responsibility to the world to just keep that oil in the ground?"

Politics in the Pipeline

And there's another reason environmental activists have galvanized around this issue: the politics of the moment.

Protester Courtney Hight said she campaigned for Obama in 2008, she worked for him after the election, and she's putting her hope in him now.

"This is an opportunity where the president can make the decision and he doesn't actually have to engage Congress, which has been particularly a road block in a lot of the progress that I think the president has tried to make," said Hight. "This is a chance where he can actually make the decision."

Around 11:30 Thursday morning, the crowd across from the White House looked on as their colleagues started getting arrested and squired onto a waiting bus.

Elevating the Keystone XL pipeline to a symbol carries some risks. Many Americans believe we should be promoting oil development to help keep the price of oil in check. The pipeline oil is too small a fraction of global oil supply to make a significant difference one way or the other, but the symbolism — to drill or not to drill — cuts both ways.

"If you expect the president to kill every development that marginally increases greenhouse gas emissions, and conclude that if he doesn't, then he's not serious about climate change, you'll be sorely disappointed," said Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "This is a pragmatic president, and he is not going to decide everything just based on symbolism."

And the fact is, American automobiles are already burning oil from the Canadian tar sands. Other pipelines bring in about a million barrels a day. The Keystone XL would not even double our imports of this dirty but abundant crude.