Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Toxic Sludge is Good For You!

When it comes to capitalism vs. the environment, capitalism always wins.

The disheartening though unsurprising defeat of a South Portland ordinance earlier this month that would have prohibited the transportation of tar sands oil through neighboring Sebago Lake, provides another stark example of the environment's perpetual subordination to capitalism.

The citizen-led referendum, "The Waterfront Protection Ordinance," would have effectively prevented the loading and transportation of tar sands oil onto ships at South Portland's waterfront. Voters narrowly defeated the measure 51-49 percent, or by a margin of about 200 votes.

The Portland Pipe Line Corporation, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil and operator of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline which would deliver dirty, highly corrosive oil sands (or "tar sands" oil) from Alberta, Canada, poured in close to $600,000 to defeat the referendum question.

Opponents received additional campaign funding from other oil giants including Citgo, Irving, and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as the South Portland Chamber of Commerce, according to The Bangor Daily News (11/05/2013). Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat whom the local chapter of the Sierra Club awarded an environmental record of "B+" in 2002, also publicly opposed the ordinance.

The oil industry used the traditional Business talking-points--"Job killer!", "Protect working families!", "Our way-of-life is in danger!"--to convince residents to vote against the measure. They even recruited the local firefighters union in their efforts, thus making the campaign out to be a labor issue. Editorials in the ("liberal") local press uniformly lambasted the ordinance as "overly broad," preferring to quibble over procedural details while ignoring the ordinance's overall aim. The Press Herald staff editorial against the WPO ("Our View: Waterfront vote affects more than tar sands," 10/17/13), for instance, cites all the economic concerns, yet says virtually nothing about the dangers of tar sands oil.

The fact is, if the Portland-Montreal Pipeline were to rupture and leak heavy tar sands oil into Sebago Lake, none of these purely economic concerns will matter. None of them. Jobs...? Sure, temporary clean-up jobs. Local economy...? Destroyed. Tourism...? Ha! Yes, I can see it now: "Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Used to Be." Or, how about this play on our new city motto: "Portland. Yes, water's poisoned here."

Sebago Lake, it is worth noting, provides the water supply for the Greater Portland area, and about 15 percent of the state. It is routinely ranked as some of the cleanest water in the Northeast.

Contrary to the claims of Exxon Mobil press secretaries, tar sands oil is nothing like the conventional oil you put in your car. It is exponentially worse.

Tar sands contain crude bitumen and release about three times as much CO2 as refined oil. The process of extracting the sludgy material alone is extremely energy intensive and poses a major risk to the Alberta boreal forest and wetlands from which it is derived. But a mass-scale production of the substance, as envisioned in the all-but-imminent Keystone XL Pipeline, would be an environmental nightmare--a "carbon bomb," in the words of esteemed climate scientist James Hansen. Tar sands oil's potential impact on climate change, Hansen warns, would spell "game over for the climate."

Earlier this year, global CO2 emissions surpassed 400 parts per million, an atmospheric concentration not seen since prehistoric eras. According to Hansen, any CO2 level greater than 350 ppm is not compatible with "a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and life on Earth is adapted."

As I write, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm in recorded history, has left nearly 4,000 dead in the Philippines. (The precise death toll, according to NPR, may never be known.)

Contemporary political discourse perpetually (and myopically) pits The Economy against The Environment as if the two are separate and mutually exclusive concerns. And The Economy (i.e. Capitalism) wins every time. Environmental regulations and protections, politicians warn us, will mean job losses or potentially missed economic opportunities.

Not only is this mentality completely warped, on a practical level it is unsustainable. Unlimited, unhindered economic growth on a planet of finite resources is simply not possible. To put it another way, capitalism and environmental sustainability are incompatible. The fact that the oil industry has shifted focus in recent years to tar sands, mountain-top removal, deep-water oil drilling and "fracking" is testament to the reality that we have essentially used up all the planet's readily available resources. The easy stuff is gone. We burned it all into the atmosphere. Now the oil giants, like an obsessed Captain Ahab, are maniacally tearing the planet apart to find more.

As Ahab says in Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, "All my means are sane, my motive and object are mad." The doomed whale-hunting captain, like the self-serving billionaire CEOs that manage Exxon Mobil, "did long disassemble" from mankind. If they must destroy the planet in order to maintain their outrageous profit margins, so be it.

The good news is the environmental activists that crafted the WPO ordinance are not ready to give up the fight. Indeed, a vote this close signals no mandate for the winners. South Portland Mayor Tom Blake and most of the members of the City Council support a ban on tar sands transportation in the city. The day after the election, Mayor Blake convened a Council meeting to discuss the issue further.

While I hope my neighbors in South Portland are successful, it is important to keep the larger perspective in mind. As long as protecting the planet remains subordinate to capitalism and "economic growth," this battle remains one we are, in the long-run, doomed to lose.

Fawzi Ibrahim, author of the eco-socialist book, Capitalism Versus Planet Earth: An Irreconcilable Conflict, sums it up best:

"Today, humanity faces a stark choice: Save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet."

Local readers can join the effort to keep Maine tar-sands free by clicking here. And you can make a donation to Guerrilla Press by clicking the "Donate" button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

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