Lukas-Howe: Saying no to tar sands oil

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Rev. Ingrid Lukas-Howe of Barre, an ordained minister, spiritual director and founder of the non-profit organization Women & Children First.

If you believe there is no global warming and if you think big oil companies have our best interest at heart, then you can stop reading here.

However, if you are concerned about the amount of carbon dioxide spilling into the air, and if you suspect that big oil companies are more interested in profit than service, read on.

In late August and early September, 1,253 people from all over the United States and Canada allowed themselves to be arrested in front of the White House in order to focus attention on TransCanada’s Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. I was one. A powerful movement of consciousness and spirit made this issue THE issue where we drew our collective, non-violent line in the sand.

The development of the Alberta Tar Sands is literally the biggest industrial project on earth–ever. It will literally change the face of the Earth.

Enough is enough.

Those living closest to the Canadian Tar Sands extraction—the indigenous peoples of Alberta—were the first to respond to the dangers of the Tar Sands pipeline because they were the first to feel the impact. The Cree, Dene and Metis nations, who have lived in northern Canada for over 10,000 years, are witnessing in their generation “the slow industrial genocide” of their people. Those living downstream from the Tar Sands were and are dying in unprecedented numbers from cancer. Their native habitat is being destroyed, their culture devastated. Now First Nations from both sides of the border have joined together to sound the alarm of treaty and human rights violations.

American farmers in the Dakotas and Midwest also began asking questions. “Don’t I have a say in what happens to my farm?” “Can a Canadian company just take my land to build their pipeline?” Unfortunately, surveyors from TransCanada had given many farmers the impression that the Keystone XL pipeline and the ensuing confiscation of private property was a done deal. Farmers were scared as TransCanada gave them the option of accepting their purchase price or else surrendering land for free under the law of eminent domain. The organization BOLD Nebraska was formed to tell farmers the truth and to counteract the intimidating pressure from TransCanada. At private meetings and public hearings in the heartland of America, people from the Dakotas to Texas spoke up in protest, but many politicians are listening harder to TransCanada than to their own constituents.

Over the past two years, the State Department produced two environmental impact statements putting its stamp of approval on the Keystone XL pipeline. These reports were so severely flawed that the Environmental Protection Agency refused to accept them. On Aug. 26, the State Department submitted a third environmental impact report. The author? Not the State Department but “Cardno Entrix,” a client of TransCanada handpicked by TransCanada to write the report. State Department documents are now leaking out showing how the State Department coached TransCanada on winning State Department approval.

TransCanada has also conducted a multi-million dollar ad campaign to brand Tar Sands oil as 1) environmentally safe 2) job-producing and 3) economically beneficial for American consumers. The campaign is seductive. It works. Watch TransCanada’s commercials and you will see chirping birds in evergreen trees, happy workers and satisfied customers. We want to believe in this feel-good oil from friendly neighbors, don’t we? We don’t want to think of advertising as brainwashing.

Do not be fooled. Do not become anaesthetized. Remember that native peoples are already dying from the effects of Tar Sands oil.

1) Environmentally safe? The fact is that Tar Sands oil is horrifically toxic. From extraction to use, one barrel of tar sands oil is equivalent to three barrels of conventional crude. Why? Because tar sands oil is not in liquid form. Mixed with bitumen (“tar”) deep in the cold Canadian earth, tar sands oil is solid or semi-solid like hard molasses. First, Canadian boreal forests the size of England are being clear-cut. Next, the top tons of exposed earth are moved with the world’s largest bulldozers and trucks to expose the tar sands. Then enormous amounts of fresh water and a cocktail of chemicals are used to separate the tar from the oil and make it more viscous for travel through the pipeline. The leftover polluted water—four or five barrels for every barrel of usable oil—collects in vast pools large enough to be seen from outer space. There is nothing to prevent the chemically laced pools from seeping into ground water. The resultant tar sands oil in the pipeline is much more corrosive than conventional oil, adding to the risk of leaks and spills. Finally, when carbon-rich tar sands oil is burned, it emits much more carbon dioxide into the air than conventional oil.

The fact is that conventional oil is running out. In turning to tar sands oil, the big oil companies are desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel in world oil production. As long as investors and profits keep coming, they are willing to pollute with an ever heavier and deadlier hand.

The fact is that the Keystone XL Pipeline is to be routed right through the Ogallala Aquifer, the source that provides drinking and farming water for the entire middle third of the United States. Picture it. Remember the British Petroleum spill into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico? Then imagine an oil spill into your drinking water. TransCanada says it wouldn’t happen, or if it did it wouldn’t be that bad. Are you prepared to bet your drinking water and the drinking water of one third of your neighbors on TransCanada’s technology and expertise? Consider that TransCanada has already petitioned the Department of Transportation to waive safety regulations for the pipeline. Less steel for the pipeline makes more profit for the company. Consider that the pipeline runs straight rather than circumventing the Aquifer. Why? Because a straight pipeline is more profitable than a crooked one and TransCanada’s investors insisted on it. Consider that the current 1,070 mile-long Keystone 1 pipeline from Alberta to Illinois has already leaked a dozen times in just one year of operation, including a pump station valve failure in North Dakota that resulted in a 210,000 gallon spill. In contrast, the entire U.S. pipeline system of 55,000 miles has had only two such comparable spills in over 40 years of operation.

All major U.S. environmental groups from the Sierra Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council have petitioned our government to reject TransCanada’s Keystone XL. Nine recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, have urged President Obama to reject the pipeline for the sake of the world.

2) Job creation? The fact is that any company will claim to produce jobs. (Would any company claim they won’t produce jobs?) But how do they come up with the numbers to substantiate their claims? Do they pay impartial researchers to produce impartial studies—or do they find out what people want to hear and then come up with the numbers to match, as in the case of the State Department and TransCanada client Cardno Entrix? In addition to self-interest, other factors darkly color TransCanada’s rosy prospects of job creation. First, TransCanada itself has backed off on an earlier claim of 20,000 new American jobs, reducing that number to 2,500 to 4,560 construction jobs in its data to the State Department. Second, a study by the Global Labor Institute of Cornell University brought to light that most of the $7 billion budgeted for pipeline construction will go to Canadian, not U.S., labor and materials. The pipe itself is being produced by the multi-national corporation “Welspun,” based in India, and currently under investigation for producing sub-standard steel.

The Cornell study also finds that jobs for Americans would be fewer and more temporary than TransCanada predicts and that only 10 percent – 15 percent of jobs would go to local workers. Finally, TransCanada has paid to ship in its own employees to testify at local State Department hearings. This gave the impression of local support, but as Nebraskans found out, at least some (if not most) of the speeches on job creation were given by people paid by TransCanada.

3) The economic benefit to Americans? The fact is that the Keystone XL pipeline is not intended to make oil cheaper for the average American. Just the opposite. It is intended to make oil more profitable for TransCanada and its investors. Yes, we are in the land of Doublespeak, where propaganda masquerades as truth. Those commercials looked so sincere…. TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline has always been an export pipeline. Bringing tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico will give TransCanada an outlet where it can sell to the highest bidder. The pipeline is going through the United States; it is not and never was conceived to be for the United States. Did you know that Port Arthur, Texas—the final destination of TransCanada’s tar sands oil—contains a Foreign Trade Zone? And that companies located in the Foreign Trade Zone engage in commerce tax-free? TransCanada has already contracted with six companies to take 76 percent of Keystone XL’s initial capacity. Texas independent “Valero” is TransCanada’s only American client, having contracted for at least 100,000 barrels a day until the year 2030. Investor presentations show that Valero plans to ship tar sands oil to Europe and South America. The five other companies contracting with TransCanada in the Foreign Trade Zone include Royal Dutch Shell in a joint venture with the Saudi government, “Total” of France, two Canadian companies and an international oil trading firm.

So what are we to make of a U.S. State Department that publicly pronounces that the Keystone XL pipeline is “in the national interest?”

Well, it is indeed in someone’s interest. The deals detailed above and all the deals we don’t know about are lining someone’s pockets.

It was my honor and privilege to be arrested with indigenous men and women like Gitz Crazy Boy from Ground Zero (Fort Chip, Alberta) and Eagle Woman of the Lakota people. I have seldom seen such honest, suffering, determined faces, nor heard such passionate testimonies speaking truth to power. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know this pipeline is not in their interest or in the interest of any indigenous people.

I have only to look at pictures of the exploited Tar Sands to know this pipeline is not in the interest of Mother Earth. I believe the judgment of NASA climatologist James Hansen when he says burning tar sands oil will be the tipping point for the Earth. Climate chaos will be irreversible.

I know the pipeline is not in the interest of any person, creature, or plant drinking water from the Ogallala Aquifer.

I know that work must be honorable and must further the common good. Gain or profit for money’s sake alone is not in the national interest of any people who aspire to democracy and justice.

I know that blending oil with politics makes a lethal mix. When we say we are addicted to oil, we need to mean it. We need to confess it like an addict going to AA/NA for the first time. It is NOT in our national interest that oil corrupts this government of, by and for the people. We need to confess it together until we admit our powerlessness and appeal to a Higher Power.

Finally, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I know that people of all faiths are called at this time in history to witness to the power of love-in-action on a scale that the world has never before seen. It is only the power of love-in-action that can defeat the worldwide, seemingly indestructible power of greed.

The 1,253 of us arrested in August and September are living proof that once you’re on the road to recovery, you want to take the next step…and the next. You leave the addiction behind and you want to celebrate that road of freedom.

We arrestees have vowed to continue our walk in our communities and to gather again in front of the White House with increased numbers and commitment.

If you are so moved, support the next phase of this movement in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011.

President Barack Obama alone can make the decision to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. We are encircling the White House to stand strong and speak with conviction the words he himself said to us: “Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.”

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  • Melinda Sample

    Thank you for your strong words. Well said. I will be with you Nov. 6th to surround the White House and give Obama a loud and clear message that the Tar Sand project is so wrong for our world. Thanks so much. Let’s keep up the fight. Join the OWS’s and to make the long term changes we need, Our country needs to work for all the people.

  • Jeff Morrison

    This article is full of half-truths and blatant, unsupported lies. Just an example . . .

    “Those living downstream from the Tar Sands were and are dying in unprecedented numbers from cancer”

    The cancer cluster the author speaks of is actually north of the oil sands and not “downstream”. Secondly, “The overall findings show no cause for alarm,” said Dr. Tony Fields, a vice-president at Alberta Health Services.” Thirdly “Fields said the higher than expected number of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan could be due to chance, and increased detection.” Fourth, first nations have historically had higher cancer levels, shorter lifespans and poorer health than the general population. But because this doesn’t fit with the environmental lobby’s evidence, it is left out.

    If the author is going to claim the oil companies are biased and paint a “pretty picture” of their activities, then it is hypocritical to pain the exact opposite picture without any attention to the actual facts.