Environmentalism’s Last Stand Tar sands and the future of our eco-system

by Adam

Mickey Z.

Over the past few weeks, while most Americans were enjoying summer vacations or discussing the upcoming NFL season or dealing with hurricanes and earthquakes, over 1200 of their fellow primates were arrested near the White House for protesting against a proposed tar sands pipeline.

At first glance, this may not qualify as a major event or even a particularly large protest (e.g. 14,000 protestors were arrested in DC at a single 1971 anti-war demonstration) but since many have called Canada’s tar sands projects the “most destructive” on Earth, we just might be witnessing environmentalism’s last stand.

Tar Sands 101

“Our modern industrial economy takes a mountain covered with trees, lakes, running streams and transforms it into a mountain of junk, garbage, slime pits, and debris.”

– Edward Abbey

In contemporary green conversation, the term “tar sands” usually refers to a specific Canada-based project. More generally, tar sands (also known as “oil sands”) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and heavy, black viscous oil called bitumen. Since the bitumen cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state, tar sand deposits must be extracted and processed via strip mining or open pit techniques. These highly intensive (read: ecocidal) methods require the use of large hydraulic and electrically powered shovels and mammoth trucks that can carry up to 320 tons of tar sands per load.

Dig this: About two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel of oil and the production of one gallon of oil requires thirty-five gallons of water. (Ben Tre Logic, anyone?)

Lloyd Alter of TreeHugger.com lists some of the major impacts of Canada’s massive tar sands projects:

  • Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year.
  • At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ends up in tailing ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing.
  • Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes.
  • The toxic tailing ponds are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world.
  • The ponds span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.
  • Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil.

To which, the Sierra Club adds:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are three times those of conventional oil and gas production
  • Tar sands development is already Canada’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gases
  • In the US, growing interest in tar sands development could increase greenhouse gas emissions from new tar sands projects from 27 to 126 million tons by 2015

I could go on but, hey, that’s what search engines are for (and it’s a great first step towards empowering yourself with information on this earth-killing project). Instead, I’ll inform you that even the propaganda wing of Corporate America is beginning to quiver and quake.

On August 22, 2011, a New York Times editorial came out against not only the aforementioned pipeline but also against tar sands production in general.

The Times offered what they called “two main concerns”: The risk of oil spills along the pipeline and drastically increasing greenhouse emissions. The editors added: “Canada will double its current tar sands production over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels a day. That rate will mean cutting down some 740,000 acres of boreal forest—a natural carbon reservoir.”

Don’t Follow Leaders

“Somehow we need to get back the President we thought we elected in 2008. We are just now finishing up the largest civil disobedience in this country in this century. We won’t attack the President. We will only hold him to the standard he set in 2008. We have been arrested for two weeks straight, but without bitterness or hate. Only joy and resolve.”

– Bill McKibben

It’s an odd dilemma when the New York Times takes a more holistic view than environmental activists. One protest website, for example, states as its goal: “Convince President Obama to reject the notoriously destructive Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry nearly a million of barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas.”

Sadly, it’s not surprising that mainstream eco-activists would imagine themselves able to convince a corporate-owned war criminal to act in the interests of our landbase. On the Tar Sands Action website, they urge: “If you wore an Obama button during the 2008 campaign, why not wear it again? We very much still want to believe in the promise of that young Senator…”

Glaring lack of political savvy aside, I’d strongly suggest that it would be far more useful for activists to not just focus on begging the latest figurehead of empire to veto the pipeline but rather, to take a broader stance against all tar sands production. This requires both a new vision and also a big chunk of skepticism aimed in the direction of those organizing the White House protests.

One such organizer is Bill McKibben (quoted above), founder of 350.org. Consider this exchange I had with him during an interview in December 2010:

MZ: Of your work, Derrick Jensen has said: “One of the problems that I see with the vast majority of so-called solutions to global warming is that they take industrial capitalism as a given and the planet which must conform to industrial capitalism, as opposed to the other way around.” How do you respond to this critique?

BM: It strikes me that the single biggest variable explaining the structure of the world today is the availability of cheap fossil fuel—that’s what happened two hundred years ago to create the world we know, especially its centralization. I think if we can put a serious price on fossil fuel, one that reflects the damage it does to our earth, than the fuels that we will depend on—principally wind and sun—will push us in the direction of more localized economies. Those kind of changes have been the focus of my work as a writer in recent years.

Can you say “evasive”?

News Flash: Ecocide Spares Nothing

“The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Of tar sands production, Greenpeace declares: “Areas of wilderness the size of small countries are chewed up and replaced by a landscape of toxic lakes, open pit mines, refineries, and pipe lines. The tar sands are what unrestrained fossil fuel use and unchecked greenhouse gas emissions look like. They are pushing us towards runaway climate change.”

Fortunately, not all protestors are drunk on the hope-and-change Kool-Aid.

“If he [Obama] chooses the dirty needle it is game over [for the earth’s climate] because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction,” said James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.  “Canada is going to sell its dope, if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict.”

Yes, we are a nation of addicts and yes, we are approaching “game over” for the eco-system…so guess what? Stopping the pipeline is not nearly enough. Not even stopping all tar sands projects is nearly enough. When the Sierra Club warns that greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are “three times those of conventional oil and gas production,” the subtle implication is that “conventional” is somehow tolerable.

Au contraire, comrades. “Conventional” is what started us on the path towards “game over.”

Three suggested paths to one crucial destination:

  • If this article represents the first time you’ve ever heard of tar sands, perhaps you should get on board with the pipeline protests happening now
  • If you’re currently rallying against the pipeline, it’s probably time to aim for a larger target: tar sands production itself
  • For those who already recognize the destructive potential of eco-industrial projects like tar sands extraction, well…let’s go for the big changes: downsizing an inarguably unsustainable oil-based culture that—by definition—requires the relentless exploitation of resources and is thus killing the eco-system

There’s enough work for all of us and it’s gonna take a lot of us to rescue the landbase we share with all life. Today, the tar sands pipeline. Tomorrow?

Mickey Z. is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Darker Shade of Green. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on an obscure website called Facebook.