The news today is grim.
We hear that Democrat Mary Landrieu, fighting for her political life in oil-dominated Louisiana, is joining with Senate Republicans in a bid to force the Obama Administration to approve the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, linking Canada’s toxic petro-moonscape in Alberta to export refineries on the Gulf Coast. Harry Reid, the lame-duck Majority Leader, will do her the favor of letting the vote come to the floor. In the House, Speaker Boehner will easily roll over the opposition. Before you know it, legislation will almost certainly land on President Obama’s desk, demanding that he approve the pipeline now.
But for months now, a prayer-band of Christians has regularly raised its voice to God, begging Him to stop the powerful forces seeking to enrich the wealthy at the expense of His Creation, and especially the poor and vulnerable. Today, we recall the many who have prayed in the face of overwhelming power. We recall Judah’s King Jehoshaphat, who looked from Jerusalem’s walls at an overwhelming swarm of invaders, and prayed: “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you…” (1 Chron. 20:12). We remember the apostles Peter and John, facing threats from the Sanhedrin that had just murdered the Son of Man: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness…” (Acts 4:29).
It has looked grim for God’s people many times before. But we continue to pray: Lord, stretch out your hand to protect the poor, the powerless, the Creation that you love, from the hand of the powerful, the greedy, and the willfully ignorant. God has not always answered the way we have hoped. But He always invites us – even more, He commands us – into His presence to pray.
But most Americans – many Christians included – seem not to understand why we’re on our knees. Isn’t this pipeline a major source of jobs? Isn’t this our ticket to “energy independence?” Shouldn’t we believe the hundreds of TV commercials we’ve seen promising huge economic benefits and a pristine environment – if only we’ll give the multinational oil companies an easy pathway through our agricultural heartland to the sea?
Well, in a word, No. And no. And no.
But we can do better than that. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have taken to the streets in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. And their reasons vary depending on their home community, their tribe, or their particular interests. But for brevity, let me pick four key reasons why we wish that all people of faith would join us in praying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline:
- Tar sands expansion harms native Canadian nations, already being poisoned by tar sands mining.
- Just when the world’s two largest carbon polluters have finally agreed to act on climate change, the Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil.
- Big-money oil exporters will profit, but ordinary people will suffer.
- The world is desperate for climate leadership from America.
Tar sands mining harms Canadian native people: The First Nations, especially the Cree and Dene people, have lived sustainably in the Alberta tar sands region for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived. They rely on the water, the fish, and the game to sustain their communities and their lives. But the tar sand mining of the last two decades has irreversibly polluted much of their land and water, spawning an epidemic of cancers, and other ills. Indigenous communities like Fort Chipewyan – so remote and pristine as to be accessible only over frozen rivers – are now reduced to buying bottled water and importing all their food. We now hear the disturbing word “genocide” in connection with some of these nations. And if we’re offended by the word, perhaps we should try to imagine the offense taken by its victims.
I spent a week among the tar sands nations earlier this year, and can attest that these concerns are not exaggerated. In fact, the cultural gentleness of these people tends, in my opinion, to mask the full extent of the harm that the carbon-industrial complex is wreaking on them and their children.
But you don’t have to make the long trip to Fort McMurray yourself. Just watch any of a number of easily accessible videos. It’s worth hearing from the principal doctor serving some of these cancer clusters. Here’s one that’s worth the three minutes of run time:
Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil: It’s not for nothing that TransCanada, Exxon, Shell, Valero, Total and others are desperate to force Obama and Kerry to approve the pipeline. Alberta has unimaginable petroleum resources, and these giant companies have bet billions that they can get their hands on it and sell it on world markets.
The problem is, Alberta’s tar sands possess enough carbon to cook the planet several times over – almost certainly enough to drive a mass extinction to rival the end of the Cretaceous Period (goodbye, T-Rex!). The world’s climate science community has told us that we are on a strict global carbon budget now: a total of no more than one trillion tons of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere if we are to have a serious chance of keeping the world’s temperature increase below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages.
The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half that amount, and on our current pace, we’ll cross the trillion-ton threshold by 2030. It’s important, therefore, as we transition from fossil fuels, not to double down on the most polluting ones. But tar sands are much more polluting than conventional oils. The extraction and refining of Alberta tar sands generates about three times more CO2 than conventional extraction.
And there’s so much of it in Alberta. If the living species that God has created are to survive in His world, then most of the tar sands simply must stay in the ground.
From a planetary perspective, the good news is that Alberta’s heavy crude is landlocked, far from refining and export infrastructure, and largely impeded by lands controlled by indigenous First Nations, many of which are hostile to polluting industries. Without the Keystone XL, the industry uses smaller pipelines, trucks and trains, all of which add to costs. In fact, most analysts agree that tar sands production is a money-loser at world prices below $75. Today, the world price is about $74.
So anything that we do to increase the flow and lower the cost of tar sands oil will inevitably add to the flood of carbon that is endangering the world and its many threatened species, including the billions of humans most vulnerable to flood, drought, sea level rise and ocean acidification, all linked to carbon pollution.
Ordinary people will suffer: To hear the oil company commercials – and their politicians – you’d think just the opposite. Mainly, they promise jobs. And sure enough, the State Department has concluded that constructing the pipeline will produce about 1,950 temporary jobs over two years. But the total of permanent jobs (excluding environmental clean-up jobs from pipeline leaks) is now estimated at a total of less than fifty. Actually, it’s only 35 operators and inspectors, to be precise. For perspective, the US economy generated 142,000 new jobs last month, or about 5,000 jobs per day.
So whatever numbers you buy into, can anyone imagine scores of Congressmen scrambling to push through a pipeline project as a jobs program, if it generates less than one day’s worth of job creation?
But if ordinary people won’t benefit, the flip side of this reality is much darker. We now know that climate change always harms the poor first. Environmental degradation of every sort has been shown in study after study to affect minority and low-income communities disproportionately. And what’s true for pollution of all sorts is especially acute for climate pollution, where all the most climate vulnerable countries are low emitters, and all the highest polluting countries are rich.
The world is desperate for climate leadership from America: Together with China, the US accounts for 40 percent of global carbon omissions. Worse, we are among the very worst offenders on a per capita basis, at more than 19 tons of CO2 per American each year, more than double the world average.
In the past, the US actively undermined international efforts to address catastrophic climate disruption. Our refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol – alone among all the nations on earth – contributed significantly to the failure of that effort. On this site, we’ve quoted Rev. Peter Karanja, Kenya’s leading Protestant church leader, who begged us to send this message to our country:
“We are very concerned, especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. We don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from industry money, or maybe people just don’t know about climate change. They are not willing to reduce anything, and they’re not at all willing to finance the cost of adaptation….
“The message needs to get to the American people. You need to tell your leaders: ‘We are the ones who put you in office. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.’
“We have these international conferences on climate change. But at the end of the day, the U.S. always comes up with something to make them collapse. We come away with nothing, and no hope. Because Christians are one family, they must be the ones to pressure their governments to act responsibly.”
Well, as of yesterday, the US (and China) could hold their heads a bit higher, and ask other countries to join us in fighting climate change. The spillover effect on other countries is cited by virtually all observers as the most important effect of the Obama-Xi agreement on reducing carbon emissions. But in a single stroke, Congress could negate this advantage entirely, declaring loudly that whatever we may say, we have no intention of actually doing anything to relieve global suffering from climate disruption.
So there you have it. For me, those are the big reasons we’re asking God daily to stop this one pipeline project. And today, it looks like we’re pretty seriously outgunned. We have been from the outset, of course. But now, they seem to have the votes.
But Christians believe that the world is fundamentally broken, and that Christ’s plan is to fix “all things,” and to reconcile them to Himself. We’ve never believed that this requires a Senate majority, or a friendly President.
And so we pray, even today.