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Liz Barratt-Brown’s Blog

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline makes history as more than 1000 arrested in protest at White House

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted September 2, 2011

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Protesters have included scientists, ranchers, and celebrities - you can take action by going to

The protests have marked a watershed for the environmental community and for civil disobedience as a powerful democratic tool.  The number of citizens arrested engaging in peaceful sit-ins at the White House tipped to over 1,000 in the next to last day of the protests.  The collective message to the President is that Americans want a secure future – one in which we don’t destroy our lands, pollute our waters and air, and poison communities – to make our energy.  A future in which we build-up our communities and increase ecosystem resilience, not tear them down.  A future in which we harness energy from the wind and the sun using American know how and technology instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel for our energy.  As James Hansen, the President’s chief climatologist said earlier this week before being arrested, we want to find a leader big enough to help us realize our dreams. 

Bill Erasmus, Regional Chief, Assembly of First Nations, speaking outside White House. Photo credit: Josh Lopez.

Bill Erasmus is the National Chief of the Dene Nation living downstream from the tar sands

Today was also a watershed as it brought together indigenous leaders from Canada and the United States, many of whom have been on the front lines of the tar sands battle in Canada and along existing pipeline routes in the U.S.  These leaders came to join hands with one another and with newcomers to the battle.  As they spoke, they held beautiful photographs of the natural landscape of their Boreal forest home and horrifying pictures of the tar sands development. In each photo, a person holds the sign, “OBAMA – CHOOSE HOPE NOT TAR SANDS”.    As Naomi Klein, author of the Shock Doctrine, put it today, it is hard to look at the tar sands and allow it to continue.  So we often look away.  These past two weeks have focused the American public as never before on the tar sands.     

Certainly, the tar sands debate will never be the same.  I remember when – for me – the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development transformed into the Rio Earth Summit as I looked down in the huge conference hall and saw Ted Turner, Al Gore and the Dalai Lama walking together.  Over the last two weeks, a new or renewed solidarity has been born – between Canadians and Americans, those living downstream from the giant pits and those living along the proposed pipeline path, those in the labor community and those in the environmental community fighting for our planet - as one labor leader put it today, we all have skin in that.  And some big personalities have engaged.   

Now the challenge is to take all the energy that has been created and turn it loose on the next and last phase of the Keystone XL pipeline review – the National Interest Determination.  I have huge faith that Bill McKibben and his organization,, can do it alongside the already large and effective network of groups working on the tar sands.  

So here is what we have ahead of us. The State Department must – under an Executive Order that governs the pipeline review process – make an affirmative finding that the pipeline is in the national interest.  Agencies have 90 days to comment on issues related to national interest and to ask for additional analysis so they can make their recommendation to the Secretary of State.  If they ask for additional information, the 90 days is put on hold until that information is generated.  That is why the Administration’s repeated insistence that they will make a decision by the end of the year is contrary to this collective process. And it is why it is important that the Department of Energy clarified in a statement today that the Secretary of Energy has not made a decision about the merits of the pipeline. 

For cooperating agencies to participate meaningfully, they must have thorough and accurate analysis to weigh what will be many competing arguments.  That thorough and accurate analysis is not available through the FEIS – a highly flawed document written mainly by consultants with a cozy relationship with TransCanada, the company seeking the permit to construct Keystone XL.  For a thorough review, there is a long list of issues that will have to be considered, including:

  • A robust review of alternatives to the oil the pipeline would import
  • A review of alternative routes – routes that would avoid the heart of the Ogallala aquifer and other sensitive ecosystems such as the Yellowstone River that just suffered from a major oil spill
  • A review of the refinery by refinery impacts on already beleaguered communities in the Gulf
  • An assessment of the impact of this pipeline on moving to a clean energy economy
  • An assessment of the increased spill and corrosion risks of transporting tar sands bitumen through pipelines (there are no regulations that govern acidic and corrosive bitumen)
  • An assessment of whether the pipeline will create access to a global market for tar sands oil, undercutting the main argument in defense of this pipeline, namely that it will provide energy security benefits to the U.S. (Oil Change International released an excellent report on this point this week)

These analyses, all of which EPA has also asked for, should be generated to uphold the President’s commitment, made clear in a question he fielded at a clean energy event in Pennsylvania earlier this year, that the review be thorough and science-based.  And they should dictate the deadline for making a decision, not an arbitrary end-of-the year date.   

In a blog posted yesterday, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations missed a key point that for all the debate about the Keystone XL, much of this critical analysis is still missing.  Instead he chose to single out statements of pipeline opponents without the larger context.  For instance, he accused NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner of focusing unduly on the likely export of diesel fuel from Gulf refineries refining Keystone XL oil.  But Lehner’s larger point is that the pipeline will not provide greater “energy security” to the U.S. as its proponents argue.  Instead, Lehner says it will undermine our security because it will compromise our air, water, and clean energy future.  And he points out that those who believe that the pipeline will directly benefit from use of this oil, should think again.  Nit picking aside, how would Levi answer the arguments put forward by the pipeline proponents – does this pipeline really increase U.S. energy security?  Would it lower gas prices?  Would it really protect the U.S. from oil price and political volatility given that the price of oil is set by forces outside of North America anyway?  Based on his previous writing on this issue, I don’t believe even Mr. Levi really believes the answer to these questions is yes. 

At a time when there is no national climate change legislation, no regulations governing diluted bitumen (the form of tar sands oil to be shipped through the pipeline), and when our global warming emissions have exceeded what the atmosphere can hold without major climate disruption, permitting a pipeline to bring nearly 1 million barrels more a day of the highest carbon oil on the planet to the U.S. Gulf coast, refine it there,  leaving the pollution behind, to potentially be exported as refined products – whether that is gas, diesel, or jet fuel – is clearly not – as Mr. Lehner says - in our national interest. 

Naomi Klein makes perhaps the most important point - deepening our dependence on tar sands oil is not only an energy issue, it is a values issue. Allowing the tar sands to be extracted, with all the attendant damage to the land and people, warps our values as human beings.  We must keep our gaze on the tar sands destruction.  That’s what the protests have done. They have helped us keep our gaze on what is actually happening on the ground, hard and painful as that is, so we can be motivated to create a better future.


While NRDC does not, as an institution, engage in civil disobedience, the author was arrested with two of her tar sands colleagues on Tuesday on a vacation day.  See NRDC President Frances Beinecke's blog on the arrests here.

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Elliot FigmanSep 3 2011 10:06 AM

This is one of the very best posts on the tar sands I've seen. So strong and thoughtful. Thank you to Liz

Bangor GoodeSep 4 2011 12:21 AM

I want me some tar sands!

Gian-AngeloSep 4 2011 08:33 PM

Clearly, the Obama Administration now agrees with the Republican Party that the EPA hurts the economy. This is why the EPA's recommendations on smog and its request for a true environmental review of the Keystone XL have been ignored.

David FletcherSep 6 2011 04:40 PM

In the NPR article on Sept 1, 2011 you say " emissions from producing oil for the Keystone XL pipeline would be about the same as building seven new coal-fired power plants.." Where can I find the data to back this claim up?

Liz Barratt-BrownSep 6 2011 05:18 PM

Thanks David. This figure comes from EPA's first comment letter on the Draft EIS published in July, 2010 ($file/20100126.PDF?OpenElement). In that letter (on page 2), EPA says: "Our calculations indicate that on an annual basis, and assuming the maximum volume of 900,000 barrels per day of pipeline capacity, annual well-to-tank emissions from the project would be 27 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent greater than emissions from "average" crudes. Accordingly, we estimate that GHG emissions from Canadian oil sands crude wold be approximately 82% greater than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-wheel basis. To provide some prespective on this potential scale of emissions, 27 MMTs is roughly equivalent to annual CO2 emissions of 7 coal fired power plants."

Note that this is an estimate for the incremental emissions from the project, not the total (which would be one-third higher), does not include combustion emissions from burning this oil, and does not include the impact on carbon released from mining the Boreal forest.

David FletcherSep 7 2011 11:04 AM

Thanks for this information Liz. Much appreciated.

Comments are closed for this post.


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