A Protest a Day

Shadia Fayne Wood
Daily Protests Aimed at Stopping Canadian Tar Sands Pipeline Underscores Growing Angst Over Global Warming
If you live in Washington, D.C., the protest that ended with the arrests of 65 environmentalists in front of the White House Saturday wasn’t much different from the many others that happen here all the time. Hundreds of people have been arrested at the same spot so far this year, according to the U.S. Parks Police.

What set Saturday’s demonstration apart is that over the next two weeks more than 2,000 others are expected to get arrested as well in an unprecedented show of concern about global warming and opposition to plans for a new cross-country oil pipeline.

Indeed, yesterday, while writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and dozens of others where still languishing in jail cells after their arrests Saturday, 45 people were slapped with plastic cuffs, loaded into paddy wagons and taken to the Parks Police lockup. About midday today, dozens more are set to step beyond the White House police line, and so on through Sept. 3.

“It really has gathered momentum,” says Jamie Henn, a spokesperson for the protestors.

While a warming world is the underlying concern, the protestors have come to Washington with a more immediate goal: to demand Obama scuttle plans for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would start at Canada’s tar sands fields in Alberta and cut across the U.S., traversing many ecologically sensitive areas, to deliver molasses-like crude oil to Texas refineries.

Why not just hold a two-week protest demanding action on global warming instead of a contentious issue such as the pipeline? Henn points out Obama could nix the pipeline plans “with a stroke of a pen” without having to involve the U.S. Congress, which has proved increasingly gridlocked by partisan bickering.

“This is a clear referendum on the president’s policies and which side is he going to stand with on this issue,” says Henn, who says the protest is a sign that environmentalists are increasingly disillusioned with Obama’s lack of action on climate change and generally cautious stance on environmental issues since taking office.

The pipeline fight is shaping up as an important skirmish in the battle for climate action since, if it’s built, it will lock the country into decades of continued fossil fuel dependence at a time when the country’s resources would be better directed toward building a clean energy economy.

Tar sands are a particularly dirty form of petroleum. They are so difficult to extract and refine that until recent years the oil industry considered it economically unfeasible to develop the resource. The potential environmental harm is enormous, involving cutting down old-growth boreal forests and using large amounts of clean water. (For a more detailed explanation of the environmental problems with the pipeline, check out this E article.)

Still, the pipeline, the fate of which the Obama administration is expected to decide before year’s end, has powerful and persuasive backers. Russ Girling, the CEO of TransCanada Corp., the company that seeks to build it, says the Canadians are going to cut down those forests and extract the oil regardless of whether it ends up in United States, China or elsewhere. The Washington Post seized on that logic in an Aug. 13 editorial concluding that the U.S. might as well build the pipeline since the worst of the tar sands environmental devastation will happen regardless.

The oil industry and its allies often characterize advocates for a renewable energy economy as impractical dreamers. But our continued dependence fossil fuels looks increasingly desperate, not only because it’s altering our climate beyond recognition but because it will, in any event, inevitably run out. Tar sands, after all, are the dregs of what was once an abundant resource.

While fossil fuels are finite, there is an abundance of books published in recent years that detail existing technologies that could help gracefully shift the country away from dependence oil. According to the authors, moving to clean and renewable energy is not just feasible but highly practical.

That’s also the thinking of Jane Kleeb, the leader of Bold Nebraska, a bipartisan group that is working to derail the Keystone pipeline out of concern that it threatens the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies much of Nebraska’s drinking water and irrigation to farm fields across several Midwestern states.

“There are plenty of other energy sources — be it wind or solar or nuclear – that can make American oil independent,” Kleeb said in an interview this morning, just before she and seven other Nebraskans headed to the White House for their turn at civil disobedience.

For information and updates on the two-week protest go to tarsandsaction.org.