Fighting big oil
Environmentalists call the tar-sands protests ‘the biggest stretch of civil disobedience in the environmental movement in a generation’
One of the most overlooked environmental threats in North America during the past half-decade has been the massive tar-sands project in Alberta, Canada. Although the project involves the clear-cutting of a pristine forest the size of Florida, it has received little attention in the United States.
But that’s starting to change during recent weeks, thanks to activists from around the country, including Northern California, who are currently holding a sit-in at the White House. The demonstrators are protesting a plan by the Obama administration that would greatly expand the tar-sands oil-extraction process—known as one of the dirtiest in the world.
The activists, including environmental writer Bill McKibben, say that President Barack Obama should use his executive power to stop the tar-sands expansion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is poised to greenlight a proposal to build a gigantic web of pipelines across North America, connecting the tar-sands development in Alberta to markets and refineries throughout the United States.
The pipelines are expected to dramatically increase demand for oil produced from tar sands, while fostering the growth of the process. And the stakes are huge: Canada is sitting atop an estimated 200 billion barrels of oil in tar sands—second only to Saudi Arabia’s known petroleum reserves.
Many environmentalists fear that the expansion of tar-sands oil extraction will mark a tipping point in terms of climate change. NASA climatologist James Hansen recently wrote that if tar-sands development greatly increases, it’s “game over” for the fight against global warming.
“The tar sands of Canada constitute one of our planet’s greatest threats,” Hansen wrote. He also calls it a “double-barreled threat”: Producing oil from tar sands “emits two-to-three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil,” he explained, also noting that the process “diminishes one of the best carbon-reduction tools on the planet: Canada’s Boreal Forest.”
To meet demand from the United States, the Canadian government estimates that it will need to double its current tar-sands production over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels of oil a day. And the environmental destruction from tar sands, as Gasland director Josh Fox recently pointed out, will blow your mind:
Once forests are cut down, extracting oil trapped in tar sands resembles strip mining, and leaves a moonscape akin to Tolkien’s Mordor. The tar sands are then squeezed, and boiled to remove the oil. The process uses incredible amounts of water—about the same as a city with 2 million people. The wastewater is then left in giant pits so large they can be seen from space.
The process also uses tremendous amounts of energy. In 2007 alone, the Alberta tar-sands development used 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. Not surprisingly, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is astonishing: 36 million tons of carbon dioxide a day—the equivalent of 1.3 million cars.
In August during the first week of protests, The New York Times editorialized against the proposed pipelines. And, as of the last week in August, several hundred protesters, led by McKibben had been arrested at the White House sit-in. McKibben has contributed to SN&R special projects over the years, including, most recently, the September 2, 2010, cover story, “Heat, floods, melting—get it?”
The protest was interrupted briefly due to Hurricane Irene, which passed through Washington, D.C., on Saturday, August 27. During the storm, McKibben and hundreds of activists took shelter inside of a church. McKibben wrote that police had planned to arrest hundreds of activists on that Saturday but opted instead to help with preparations for the hurricane.
McKibben called the protests of the $7 billion pipeline and upsurge in tar-sands production “the biggest stretch of civil disobedience in the environmental movement in a generation” in an article for Red, Green and Blue, an environmental news website. The protests have already resumed post-storm and are scheduled to last through September 3.