Tar sands pipeline vs. human future

November 6, 2011

Tar sands pipeline vs. human future

The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline reveals two opposite futures. The push to complete the pipeline, which is to carry tar sands oil 1,980 miles from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, represents capital’s drive to keep expanding production for production’s sake, no matter how disastrous it may be to life on earth. The tar sands contain an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen, comparable to the total world reserves of conventional oil. Mining the tar sands amounts to stomping on the gas pedal of climate change. The pipeline would also risk spills over the Ogallala Aquifer, source of drinking water for 2 million people and the main source of irrigation water in the High Plains.

A second world, however, is fighting for a future conducive to truly human development, for the well-being of present and future humanity to be the basis for decisions on energy, environment, production, transportation and consumption.

From Aug. 20 to Sept. 3, Keystone opponents held sit-ins at the White House with 1,252 arrests, one of the biggest civil disobedience events in decades. Participants included Indigenous groups from the U.S. and Canada, climate scientists, environmentalists, residents of areas on the pipeline route. Some were former Obama campaign staffers, hoping in vain to shame the President into meeting his 2008 promise to “end the tyranny of oil.”

The White House sit-in was one of many actions this year against capital’s drive to extract every last drop of fossil fuel from the ground. More actions are to come. Canada saw one of its biggest civil disobedience acts in September, with over 200 arrested at Ottawa sit-ins protesting the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands.

That same month, a blockade by women of the Blood Nation in Alberta led to the arrest of three as they tried to stop fracking (hydraulic fracturing) on their people’s land. “The actual people who live on this land were both ignored and lied to,” said one of the women, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers. “We are about to kill the one thing that has given us life since the very beginning.”

Bowing to the tyranny of oil, both the Obama and the Bush-Cheney administrations let the energy industry make the decisions. The pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, picked one of its client companies, Cardno Entrix, to write the U.S. State Department’s environmental impact statements, to run its public hearings and to collect public comments. TransCanada hired a former campaign staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to lobby her State Department. A former lobbyist for TransCanada was hired as a top adviser of the Obama 2012 campaign.

The environmental impact statements claimed that the pipeline would have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” In reality no study has been done to determine
what effects the tar sands oil has on pipelines.

The oil is more acidic and corrosive than standard oil, and contains quartz sand. Pumped at high pressure, it can sandblast pipes from within.


Leaked emails revealed that TransCanada had withdrawn a request to use higher pressure than allowed by regulations, in order to sneak the waiver request in after the State Department issues a permit.

Moreover, regulation of hazardous-liquid pipelines is practically nonexistent. Accidents are mounting, such as the gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif., last year, and the spill of one million gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in
July 2010. The first phase of the Keystone project has leaked 14 times since it began operating in June 2010.

Similarly, the Canadian government has effectively abandoned oversight of tar sands operations, according to the Royal Society of Canada. Both the federal and provincial governments act primarily as boosters of the tar sands, prompting Canada to abandon its Kyoto commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It takes three times as much energy to extract and refine tar sands oil as conventional oil. Hence the utter irrationality of bringing in massive amounts of natural gas to burn just to extract oil—a perfect symbol of production for production’s sake.


The irrationality of capitalism is brought into stark relief by the contradiction between the growing toll taken by climate change and official estimates that oil, coal and gas use will continue to increase every year.

Alberta’s energy minister is already calling for two more pipelines comparable to Keystone XL. One would cross the Rockies to the Pacific to be sent to Asia, and is being fought by First Nations along the route in British Columbia, who have declared that they will not allow tar sands oil to pass through their land and waters. That is being built by Enbridge, the polluter of the Kalamazoo River. Further south, a new marine terminal is planned in Bellingham, Wash., to export coal to Asia. That too is being fought by both local residents and the national movement to halt climate change.

What is needed is a transformation so deep as to replace capitalism’s never-ending appetite for fossil fuels with a totally different social direction determined by human self-development. That is the basis of the two worlds clashing today.

—Franklin Dmitryev

(See more info at tarsandsaction.org and lots of photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/tarsandsaction.)

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