Tag Archives: tar sands

Keystone XL Pipeline Decision: Did it Matter?

Near the back of our farm, our level produce fields begin to slope upward into a rocky wooded bluff, before dropping off sharply into the headwaters of the beautiful Pequest River. The bluff is a small wood, with walnuts, sycamores, cedars and maples fending off invasive imports like olive and barberry. Our kids dubbed it Little Round Top, after the Gettysburg bluff famously defended by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment on the second day of the epic Civil War battle.

In truth, our little bluff looks a lot like its namesake — unimpressive, rocky, wooded, and of no particular use to us or most others. But on that sweltering July afternoon some 150 years ago, Little Round Top was the most precious piece of real estate in the country. And that’s because on that hill, the 20th Maine stood at the very end of the Union Army’s left flank. Confederate brigades from Alabama and Texas had made a desperate dash to turn Chamberlain’s flank and roll the Union lines up from behind. And the little band from Maine was the only defense for the exposed regiments from Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, all the way to General Meade’s center on Cemetery Hill. If he should fall, there would then be nothing between Lee and a defenseless Lincoln in the capitol.

Little Round Top wall hastily built by the 20th Maine regiment

Little Round Top wall hastily built by the 20th Maine regiment

Very literally, the survival of the great American venture rested with the Maine volunteers on that useless little piece of ground – Little Round Top. You know the rest of the story, of course. Exhausted and out of ammunition, the Maine volunteers fixed bayonets and charged, modern weaponry now no more lethal than medieval spears. But upon those spears rested the dream of a United States of America, and they did not fail.

I thought about that little Gettysburg bluff a lot yesterday – the day the US finally rejected a Canadian company’s application to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline through the American heartland. For those of us accustomed to losing bout after bout to the big polluters, this day was a rare and precious gift.

The traffic on social media was euphoric: Hallelujah! Praise God! Give thanks! Well done! The back-slapping went on all day long. We exulted that – for once – our country had decided that some fossil fuels simply must be left in the ground.

And yet, from other quarters, we heard a different voice: What’s the big deal? In a world that burns 100 million barrels of oil every day, the KXL pipeline would have carried “only” 800,000 barrels – about one percent of the world’s total. With trains available to carry at least some of the tar sands crude, this one pipeline was hardly worth all the struggle, right?

Like, perhaps, that little hill – Little Round Top. A nearly worthless little piece of Pennsylvania farmland.

Virtually every great struggle has its pivot point. Before El Alamein, Hitler never lost a battle. Afterward, he never won. The same for Hirohito at Midway. And for Lee at Little Round Top.

El Alamein? Midway? Little Round Top? All pretty much worthless ground. But their defense marked the hinge of fate in some of the greatest struggles of modern history.

For me, Keystone may join them in the pantheon of epic milestones, even while its importance is dismissed by pundits at both ends of the political spectrum. From the very outset of this struggle seven years ago, we heard the dismissive narrative. Even the State Department said it: The oil will get out, one way or another. Fighting the pipeline is like fighting laws of physics (or at least of economics). Resistance is essentially futile. And on the odd chance that we might win, we have only stopped a teensy bit of world supply, even if it’s really dirty supply.

Relax. Go home. Do something useful.

Well, we didn’t go home. Evangelical Christians committed to pray daily for Kerry and Obama to reject the pipeline. We joined with native peoples and Nebraska ranchers to protest the Canadian scheme. We walked through the tar sands pits with First Nations in poisoned Alberta communities to testify to the cultural genocide inflicted by the mining. We circled the White House, arm in arm, to let Obama know how strongly we felt. We joined 1,200 others inside Washington’s Anacostia prison in our effort to be heard. We told our stories in thousands of letters to the White House. We joined 400,000 others crowding the streets of Manhattan to voice our lament for God’s creation.

And we kept on praying.

We’ve been losing for a long, long time. Greenhouse gas concentrations are now the highest they’ve been in almost a million years – permanently above 400 parts per million. Drought and flooding have become depressingly commonplace, and 60 million humans have been forcibly displaced in resource conflicts worldwide. Species continue to disappear forever; the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic than ever in human history. And the US Congress is still controlled by those who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the findings of climate science.

But, for once, we have stood our ground, and prevailed. Keystone XL is dead for now. And just watch. I think we may be seeing a new day dawning. This may be our El Alamein. This may be our Midway.

And for me? I’m headed out to take a walk up our own Little Round Top, sit on a rock, and take a moment to give thanks.

New York Times: Missing the Point on Keystone XL

The Times op-ed page is great place to find thoughtful pieces representing a variety of viewpoints. So I didn’t know what to expect when I saw an op-ed piece in yesterday morning’s paper titled “Don’t Kill Keystone XL. Regulate It.” I wondered what they could possibly be thinking.

Well, I would have never seen it coming. To my utter surprise, the gist of the article was something like this: Impose strict regulations to make really, REALLY sure the pipes don’t rust. Then let them seize all that Midwest land and build the thing. And we’ll be happy and safe knowing TransCanada’s pipeline isn’t RUSTY.

Really. I’m not making this up.

It turns out that the op-ed was written by Jonathon Waldman, a journalist and author who has just finished a book all about – you guessed it – rust. Everything you could want to know about rust in steel mills, rust in bridges, rust in naval vessels and, yes, rust in pipelines – it’s all in there. Rust: The Longest War; Simon & Schuster. If you’ve been really curious about rust, this book is for you.

But President Obama announced that his decision about the pipeline would hinge on his assessment of its likely contribution to climate change. He didn’t mention rust. And for the most part, Keystone’s opponents haven’t been fixated on rust either. They’re mostly thinking about whether we will leave a habitable world for the next generations.

Canada's tar sands, the most polluting oil. Courtesy Desmog.CA

Canada’s tar sands, the most polluting oil.       Courtesy Desmog.CA

But Waldman’s “stop-the-rust” op-ed piece has a quick answer for them all. It’s actually the same point that the State Department offered in 2011 when they first began considering TransCanada’s application to run this thing right through the middle of our country. It goes like this: In Waldman’s words, blocking the pipeline “won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come. If the oil is going to be consumed one way or another, then the only remaining argument against the Keystone pipeline is that of preventing local environmental catastrophes that result from spills.”

This man must be reasonably intelligent. But I have to wonder, where has he been the last four years? Anyone could see at the outset that the “resistance is futile” argument was cooked up in oil-company PR departments. If all the world’s oil reserves “are going to be consumed one way or another,” then we might as well say goodbye to the human race, and most other species as well.

Hyperbole, you say? Consider:

The world’s proven, recoverable fossil-fuel reserves presently controlled by energy companies contain more than five times the CO2 that is permissible for consumption if the world is to have a chance of staying within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Burn that amount five times over and we’re in 4-degree-plus territory, which climate science refers to ominously as an “unstable state.”

And what on earth does that mean? It means that in the neighborhood of  4 degrees, we trigger all kinds of “positive feedback loops,” like the shriek you hear when someone puts a microphone too close to a loudspeaker. Blow recklessly through 2 degrees, flirt with 4 degrees, and no one has any idea where it stops for thousands of years to come. White, reflective sea ice and ice sheets give way to dark ocean water and land surfaces, absorbing more and more solar heat, melting more ice, and leading to even more heat. Warming oceans release frozen deep-sea methane hydrates, which are incredibly abundant and 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, warming the oceans even more, and releasing even more methane. Melting permafrost permits enormous Arctic peat reserves to decay, releasing yet more carbon into the air, melting yet more permafrost … and so on.

In all this, one thing is clear: The extinction event that already threatens the world today will almost certainly rival the five previous mass extinctions if we disrupt the climate by 4 degrees or more. And just like in those events, such as the one 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, the dominant species never fares very well.

The Tar sands pipeline has ignited numerous protest campaigns in recent years.

The Tar sands pipeline has ignited numerous protest campaigns in recent years.

So for a rust expert to tell us that energy companies will inevitably do something that threatens our species’ survival, it’s probably fair to ask how he’s so sure.  Especially today. Up there at the Canadian end of the proposed pipeline, tar sands operations are shutting down one after the other. That’s because they’re some of the most expensive, carbon-intensive and low-quality oils in the world. And they don’t pencil out in today’s market by a long shot. Last year, both Shell and France’s oil giant Total abandoned massive new tar sands projects. Before that, Canada’s Suncor and Total killed a joint project in the tar sands – writing off a $1.5 billion investment. And just a few months ago, Canada’s Statoil announced the postponement of a major tar sands mining project for at least three years.

But just wait, you might say, and eventually prices will recover enough for these companies to turn a profit mining this stuff. I wouldn’t be so certain. Take a look at the numbers:

  • Tar sands oil is expensive to produce, and commands a low price because of its poor quality. Estimates vary, but almost all of it won’t break even at market prices below $95 per barrel.
  • Pipelines are the cheapest way to move the tar sands to market, but the Americans and the native First Nations aren’t budging on any of them. Add another $18 per barrel for expensive rail transport across the continent.
  • There’s no market price on carbon emissions today, but it is almost certainly coming. The age when pollution was free – when the costs were for everyone else to pay, while the profits flow to rich oil producers – is coming to an end. Look in virtually any company’s SEC filings, and you’ll find their plans for life after the free ride is over. The EPA has done extensive work on the “social cost of carbon” (SCC), and it’s alarming. When oil pays its own social costs, you can add another $19-20 per barrel to costs.
  • So tally up those costs, and tar sands have to clear more than $130 per barrel just to break even. Today, Brent Crude, a major benchmark oil commodity price, closed just below $60. Will it stay there? Who knows? But tar sands producers have an enormous hurdle to clear to make a profit on some of the world’s dirtiest oil, and they will for years to come, while the world transitions to a sustainable economy.

So to the Times, and the rust expert who gave us his thoughts yesterday, I would suggest a little more rigor, before you proclaim that “the oil will come out.” Resistance is NOT futile. Fossil fuel reserves will NOT all be burned into the atmosphere. The world will NOT accept extinction at the hands of one very rich industry. And congressional climate deniers will NOT forever prohibit our country from joining the world in the struggle for a sustainable future.

And to those believers who have been praying faithfully for the denial of the Keystone XL permit, your prayers are surely NOT in vain. You will keep the faith, not simply assume defeat for your Father’s world and his creatures.

Canada’s Petro-State: Fox Guarding the Henhouse?

We Americans don’t have all that much regard for foreigners, do we? Some countries seem to be brimming with jihadists. Others might bring to mind illegal immigrants. Perhaps others are stealing our jobs with their cheap labor. But Canada is different. For many Americans, Canada is almost like us. We may demand secure borders, but we don’t really mean that border.

And that’s why it would be so surprising if we were to find Canada behaving like a petro-state dictatorship.

But that’s just about what I found during my recent visit to the tar sands region of Alberta last week. It looks as though the federal and provincial governments have become so dependent on oil money that basic elements of just governance now seem like quaint throwbacks to a more innocent era.

I began to suspect this at last week’s Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta, when First Nations leaders repeated again and again the nearly identical chorus: Our land and water is being destroyed by industrial contamination, our native people are faced with de facto genocide, and the government refuses even to acknowledge our peril. In fact, the government actively suppresses evidence of our suffering.

It sounded bad. But then I heard from a doctor named John O’Connor, and his story removed all doubt.

Dr. O’Connor is a family practice physician from Fort McMurray, in the heart of the tar sands district of Alberta. In 2006, he began treating patients in the tiny indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, 150 miles downstream from “Fort Mac” and the tar sands operations. No sooner did he arrive than he began to hear stories from the community elders of ominous changes in the environment. In stark contrast to what they grew up with, they could no longer drink the water; fish and wildlife routinely showed grotesque deformities; game and fish were becoming scarce; their own people were suffering from  mysterious illnesses.

Dr. John O'Connor, Fort Chipewyan

Dr. John O’Connor, Fort Chipewyan

In no time, O’Connor began to see alarming patterns in those illnesses. Relatively rare cancers were appearing regularly – blood and lymphatic cancers, bile duct cancer, biliary tract and thyroid cancers. Added to those were auto-immune diseases – Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, skin disorders and intestinal disorders. Continue reading

Tar Sands: When it’s Hard to Pray in Jesus’ Name

How do you proclaim your faith, when that faith is culturally aligned with injustice?

American Christians who are actively seeking to care for the creation routinely face this conundrum, as our religious heritage is so often used to provide moral cover for systems of power that despoil the earth and harm the poor. We know, of course, that our own scriptures tell us to “subdue the earth;” we are granted “dominion” over the works of God’s hand; and the gospel confers almost infinite value on the individual person. Taken together, these notions can be used to provide the ideological underpinnings of the exploitative economy and the hyper-individualism that often prevents us from acting for the common good.

Nothing really new here. Thoughtful Christians can rebut the errors that flow from these notions, of course. But the last two months have confronted me with another arena of injustice where we Americans – and our dominant cultural faith – are generally on the wrong side of God’s justice. I’ve seen it because I’ve been invited twice to participate with indigenous North Americans in their struggle for the most basic elements of justice. In this brief span, I’ve been confronted with two wonders: the amazing level of hospitality and inclusion extended to Christians like me by these communities; and the extent of my religion’s historical participation in oppression and genocide, together with our ongoing disregard for its still-surviving victims.

Native elders led the Healing Walk through the tar sands pollution

Native elders led the Healing Walk through the tar sands pollution

Last month, I was among a group of Evangelicals invited to participate with the Cowboy Indian Alliance in their Reject & Protect action in Washington. They were there to demand a voice in the decision whether to permit a Canadian pipeline company to seize indigenous and rancher lands in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas for the Keystone XL pipeline. And today, I’m on my way home from the Healing Walk in Alberta, Canada, where native peoples are struggling for their very survival in the face of rampant oil-industry pollution of their supposedly treaty-protected lands and waters.

In each case, I came to pray, intending to bring with me the gracious name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I recalled the story of Peter and John speaking to the lame beggar at Jerusalem’s gate: “Silver and gold have I none. But what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.” It’s a pretty triumphant story, isn’t it? Continue reading

My Healing Walk Through the Tar Sands

The sun moves slowly in these latitudes. It gradually arks, from its rising on the northwest tree line, in a long southward loop, and back northward to its rest below the edge of the northwest summer sky.  At 11:00 last evening, we were burying the day’s compost in the pale evening light. By 3:30 this morning, the sky over the lake was already silver and rose. And so at 4:00 AM, I am up to greet the orange Alberta sunrise.

An old hymn courses through my mind: “When morning gilds the skies … may Jesus Christ be praised.” My heart is surprisingly willing this chilly Canadian Sunday. I think of my home church, soon to meet, a couple of worlds – and as many times zones – away to the southeast. I read by the lakeside J.B. Phillips’ version of the prayer of Jesus: “Father, may your name be honored – may your kingdom come!”  I think of that kingdom, with longing and hope, mixed with lament.

Willing heart, yes. But my joints are stiff, and my feet are blistered. No doubt, three nights sleeping on the ground is catching up with my pampered frame. But yesterday’s Healing Walk through Alberta’s toxic tar sands tailing lakes has done a job on my lungs and my tender feet, and I hobble around the campsite like a man twenty years older than my threescore.

Like this morning, it was a beautiful sunrise yesterday. About three hundred of us from Canada and beyond waited for a caravan of yellow school buses to take us to the Syncrude tar sands processing complex. Led by Cree, Chipewyan and Dene tribal elders, we came to pray, to recognize, and to mourn together – to bear witness to the devastation wrought in these boreal forests and indigenous homelands – by the destructive economy of which we all share some part.

For two days, we have listened to stories from native people whose families have cared for this land for millennia, and for whom the land has provided generously in return. When they call it their “mother,” they express a connection that is simply beyond the grasp of us “visitors.” There is a profound love in this community – for the water, the air, the land; and the fish, animals and people who depend upon it. People – not just the living, but those who preserved it for us long ago, and those who are yet unborn. You can feel the sense of belonging and responsibility to those who will follow “to the seventh generation.”

In due course, we are headed northward, following the flow of the Athabasca River, in our yellow bus caravan, toward the tar sands. No one calls them “oil sands” in this community. The industry PR campaign has won over much of Canada, but it’s had no effect on these people of the land.

And as we travel, the murky yellow sky ahead grows thicker. We wish to each other that we had brought bandanas for some defense against the foul air. But it’s not the air that brings us here.

It’s the water.

Take a look at a map of Canada. The pristine Athabasca flows north through Alberta, passing through the Fort McMurray tar sands region in the northeastern corner of the province.  And as it continues northward, it opens into a broad inland delta before spilling into the enormous Lake Athabasca, from which it feeds the mighty Mackenzie River. The Mackenzie, exceeded in North America only by the Mississippi. Everywhere you look on the map around here, you see water. You can’t travel overland up to Fort Chipewyan at this time of year, because there’s nothing frozen to drive on.

So you’d think, in this land blessed by God with unfathomable riches of fresh water and aquatic wildlife, surely healthy water would be enjoyed with glad and thankful hearts. Wouldn’t it? Continue reading

Keystone XL: Drawing the Line

We have lots of friends who haven’t weighed in on the massive tar sands pipeline project proposed by TransCanada, and supported by the Canadian government and the big oil companies.

But here at Beloved Planet, we’ve cared about this pretty much from the beginning. Over the long struggle, we’ve:

And now, we’re getting down to decision time. Our friends at 350.org have put together a great little video on Keystone, Canada’s last-ditch effort to override American opposition, and what we can still do to protect the creation from tar sands pollution:

Here’s the two-minute video. Take a look, and help us take action, one last time:

Why EPA Gave the Keystone XL a Failing Grade

As you may know, I’m far away listening to harrowing accounts from East Africans whose families and lives are being threatened right now by the impact of climate change. We are stunned at what we’re hearing. But this morning at breakfast, all the buzz among my fellow creation care advocates was about news from 7,500 miles away. In Washington, the EPA had just released their environmental report card on the Keystone XL pipeline. They gave the project a failing grade.

The way the law works, the State Department first has to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) on this pipeline. The EPA is then required to review the EIS, and give it the expert thumbs up, or a failing grade. 95% of the time, the EPA has only minor comments on EIS reports produced by other agencies. But this one flunked: “Environmental Objection,” was the grade; they called the EIS “insufficient.”

But we also learned something new about what democracy looks like. More than one million messages to the President and Secretary of State were submitted from members of various organizations concerned about environmental protection and climate change. And that doesn’t count messages directly sent by private citizens like the readers of Beloved Planet. I wonder how many issues have drawn one million objections from Americans. Not many, I’d bet.  Continue reading