New England Greens brave the bitter cold to protest tar sands oil in the Northeast.
Environmental activists may have successfully halted the construction of the dreaded Keystone XL Pipeline (at least for now), but another potential ecological threat looms around the corner—this one considerably closer to home.
For the past six months now, the Canadian oil company, Enbridge has been in talks with the Portland-Montreal Pipeline Company to reverse the flow of oil in a 236-mile Northeast pipeline (“Number 9 Line,”) so it can transport crude, highly corrosive tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada into South Portland. The tar-sands would travel directly through Sebago Lake, which supplies the drinking water for much of Southern Maine. Portland-Montreal Pipeline Company is a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil, which made $9.45 billion last year in its first quarter alone—or $1,300 per second.
Close to 2,000 activists from Maine and across New England converged in Portland on Saturday to voice their opposition to the plan.
Representatives of the Green Party, Occupy Maine/Wall Street, 350.org, the Sierra Club, Environment Maine and the National Resources Defense Council braved frigid 20-degree cold to march from Portland’s Monument Square to the Maine State Pier. There was even a snowman sweeping the streets in front of the Portland Public Library.
A young woman from Bowdoin College—one of dozens of college students from Bates, Colby, UMass Amherst and CUNY—was motivated to attend by the environmental threat tar sands poses. “It’s just the right thing to do,” she said. “There’s no other greater event to be at today.”
Rene Lopez, from Brunswick, echoed her sentiments. “This is the only planet we’ve got,” he said. “If we lose it, we lose everything. This transcends political party, religion—everything else.”
Lopez, a native of New York, noted the link between the climate crisis and the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy. “I grew up in New York and I’ve never seen 86th Street completely flooded,” he remarked. “There are people still struggling to recover from the storm. Just as there are still people trying to recover from Katrina.”
Judy Hopkins, of Pownal, did not hesitate when I asked what brought her to Saturday’s protest. “My grandchildren,” she said.
Hopkins introduced me to a young man who goes by the name “Coyote” who was arrested months earlier in Texas for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. “It’s people like you and Coyote who give me hope that we can create a better, healthier planet,” she said.
Tar sands—sludgy, toxic deposits that contain crude bitumen—come from Alberta’s boreal forests and wetlands. Extracting it alone is extremely energy intensive and poses great risk to the native habitats. But tar sands are also significantly dirtier than conventional oil, and contain about three times as much CO2. Such a mass production of the substance would be a “carbon bomb,” in the words of esteemed NASA climate scientist James Hansen. Indeed, back in 2011 Hansen described the Keystone XL Pipeline to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer succinctly: “Game over for the climate.”
In addition to the contributions to global warming, there is the transportation concern. Line Number 9 is 62-years-old and not specifically designed to carry heavy, crude tar sands. Should the pipeline rupture, Sebago Lake could be contaminated. According to a recent article in the Bangor Daily News, “If tar sands are pumped through that pipeline, a leak could endanger the area’s water supply at Sebago Lake and be almost impossible to clean up, because the heavy oil sinks to the bottom of the waterways.”
Enbridge has racked up 804 oil spills in the last decade, including a major one in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 which the EPA is still cleaning up.
For its part, Portland-Montreal Pipeline denies it is currently pursuing tar sands extraction. Still, Boston’s New England Petroleum Council executive director, John Quinn, felt the need to pen a defensive, propagandistic Op-Ed for the Portland Press Herald earlier this week (“Tar sands oil does not pose threat to local environment,” 01/21/2013).
Quinn writes, “…bitumen-derived crude oil, such as oil [tar] sands, is no more corrosive in transmission than other crudes.” Even if true, such a statement is hardly reassuring.
Local Greens marched with members of Massachusetts’ Green-Rainbow Party, including 2012 presidential candidate, Jill Stein.
In a recent editorial (“The Real Obama Emerges Again,” 01/17/2013), Stein denounces President Obama’s lack of leadership in tackling global warming.
“As Obama’s second term begins he’s again undermining his progressive base,” she writes, “paving the way for more austerity, disparities, war and corporate power. Washington’s failure to deal justly and effectively with the fake fiscal cliff calamity leaves little hope it will resolve the real looming crisis—the unraveling economy and accelerating climate catastrophe.”
Unfortunately, Stein was unable to deliver this message to the crowd. While local elected officials Rep. Chellie Pingree and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan addressed protesters about the dangers of tar sands, Stein was explicitly prohibited from speaking by the event’s “progressive” organizers. (Even after the election, Greens are still marginalized and silenced.)
Instead, Brennan, Pingree and the other speakers urged the crowd to “call on President Obama” to “do the right thing” on tar sands energy. Problem with that is the “right thing” for the corporate-friendly, “clean coal” president may not necessarily be the right thing for the planet.
The fact that energy corporations like Exxon-Mobil are exploring tar sands extraction is testament to environmentalists’ claim that, when it comes to finite natural resources, we have essentially used up the “easy stuff.” Hence the fossil fuel industries’ rabid focus on deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal, and dirty crude like tar sands. Rather than investing in clean, renewable energy, we are literally scraping the bottom of the planetary barrel.
This is the disease of unregulated capitalism. It is an economic system that turns everything, including human lives and the environment, into a commodity. It is, furthermore, a deeply irrational system predicated on the concept of unceasing, exponential growth—all at the expense of the ecosystems that support life on the planet.
But until capitalism is toppled in favor of a more just, humane form of social democracy, those of us in Portland and beyond will have to make due with raising our voices in protest against the assault on the planet.