Pipelines, Tankers and Tar Sands

Tar sands oil pumped via the Keystone XL Pipeline will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

by Ben West

Last week, I sat in my office in the Gastown district of Vancouver and learned that the most powerful government in the world is putting my community on notice. From my window, I watched a large crude oil tanker cruise through Burrard Inlet, as an email arrived quoting the US State Department about these very oil exports in our city. 

The email came from an ally in the historic civil disobedience action outside the US White House in Washington, DC. Over 1,200 people were arrested foropposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would link Alberta tar sands to heavy oil refineries and tanker ports along the Texas Gulf coast. In their report on the pipeline expansion, the US State Department claims that if the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t built:

“Crude oil would be transported by other proposed, planned, or existing pipelines or by alternative transportation methods (such as railroad tank cars, barges, or crude oil tankers) to markets in the global marketplace…. Several projects have been proposed … to transport crude oil from the oil sands projects to ports in Canada and in the northwestern and northeastern US.”

In other words, the US State Department claims the Keystone XL pipeline would have no impact on climate change because the tar sands would continue to expand regardless and the oil would make its way to market through BC.

As an activist fighting crude oil tanker traffic in Vancouver’s harbour, and along the entire BC coast, I felt disturbed by this insinuation that not building the Keystone pipeline would increase pressure to expand tanker traffic in BC. I knew this was a deception, because the tar sands operators wanted and expected both pipelines. Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, arrested outside the White House, has responded to this deception:

“The idea that if tar sands oil doesn’t get pumped through the Keystone XL pipeline then it will be sent to China [by tanker, through BC] is a convenient fiction by the State Department to avoid responsibility for the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions that Keystone represents. Canada is not demurely choosing between suitors from the US and China. The Canadian government …wants full access to both these markets…. That means the Obama Administration cannot avoid responsibility for the increased tar sands production that will result specifically from approving the Keystone pipeline. Every pipeline that is not built is carbon that stays out of the atmosphere.”

Bill McKibben – who founded 350.org, an international climate campaign leader in recent years – spearheaded the DC action. McKibben calls the broad effort to stop the Keystone pipeline, “defusing a carbon bomb.”

In the Financial Times (September 13, 2011), Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert acknowledged the goal of producing 4-to-5 million barrels of crude oil per day from the tar sands, more than double current production. To move this oil, the producers need the Canadian pipelines and, according to Liepert, “By 2020, we may need three Keystones.” 

This plan clashes with the stated goals of the Obama administration. President Obama said in his inauguration speech that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” He promised an 80 percent reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a goal set by the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the largest team of scientists ever tasked with studying any topic in the history of human civilization.

Some scientists have even put their bodies on the line to stress the urgency of global warming. When NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen was arrested outside the White House, he explained, “Exploitation of the tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize the climate and avoid disastrous climate impacts… If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it’s essentially game over.”

Why is President Obama not standing up to Big Oil and rejecting all proposals to expand tar sands infrastructure? We might learn a lesson from US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). In the 1930s, when activists and labour leaders urged FDR to bring in the New Deal, he told them, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” We should heed FDR’s words. To succeed, we need a strong local and international movement. Such a movement is being built today, from Vancouver, to Ottawa, to Washington, DC.

Contrary to the US State Department’s report, the Keystone pipeline debate does not put more pressure on Canada’s west coast pipelines. Rather, the Keystone action is helping create a network of opponents to tar sands expansion. Indigenous communities are providing strong global leadership for this struggle. In Bolivia, grassroots indigenous activist helped elect president Evo Morales and enshrined “the rights of Mother Earth” into their new constitution.

Last year, in British Columbia, 61 indigenous nations signed the historic “Fraser River Declaration,” which states: “… in upholding our ancestral laws, Title, Rights and responsibilities, we declare: We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.” BC First Nations remain dedicated, the majority of BC is still unceded indigenous territory, and Canada’s Supreme Court has affirmed indigenous land and title rights.

If the US State Department believes BC communities will allow our coastline to be transformed into the tar sands shipping port, they have another thing coming. Environmental organizers are working with First Nations throughout BC, the province that gave birth to Greenpeace and David Suzuki. BC was the first jurisdiction in North America with a carbon tax, and Vancouver’s municipal government has a stated goal of being the “greenest city in the world.” British Columbians feel connected to the natural paradise we share. When polled, 80 per cent of us favour a ban on oil tanker traffic in BC’s coastal waters.

To end our fossil fuels addiction, we will need a modern version of the New Deal. If we fail to reduce our fossil fuel dependence, we rush further away from sustainability. Another world is possible; it’s up to us to make it a reality. And contrary to the illusions of the US State Department, the people of BC will join with our friends around the world to provide the responsible leadership that is so lacking. The tar sands stop here.


Ben West is a campaigner with the Wilderness Committee in Vancouver.

[From Watershed Sentinel, Nov/Dec 2011]

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