Livingston residents Joanie Kresich, Margot Kidder, Linda Kenoyer and Margarita McLarty will traveled to Washington, DC last fall to protest the pending federal approval for a Canadian company to build a 1,600-mile pipeline to carry unrefined oil products from tar sands extraction in the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, and further to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The primary output of the tar sands in Alberta is bitumin, is a mixture of organic liquids so highly viscous and heavy they must be heated or diluted before flowing. At room temperature, bitumen has a consistency much like cold molasses.
Bitumen can now be made from non-petroleum based renewable resources such as sugar, molasses and rice, corn and potato starches. Bitumen can also be made from waste material by fractional distillation of used motor oils.
Tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques. The oil sands in Alberta constitute the largest known accessible reserves of bitumen.Canada is the largest supplier of petroleum products to the U.S. The Canadian oil company TransCanada Corp. completed construction in 2010 on one pipeline, the Keystone, carrying 590,000 barrels a day of Canadian oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to Patoka and Wood River, Illinois, and to a storage hub at Cushing, Oklahoma.
The expanded trans-continent Keystone XL project is scheduled to be completed by 2013. However, it has yet to receive final approvals from the U.S. government and faces opposition from some federal and state lawmakers as well as environmentalists who worry about the impact of increased Canadian oil sands development on air, land, water and local communities.
The Livingston Current sat down with three of the Livingston women who went to Washington to protest federal approval for the Keystone XL project: artist and activist Margot Kidder; educator, poet and author Joanie Kresich and retired physicist Linda Kenoyer, to discuss their impetus for attending the action in Washington.
Livingston Current: Who and what are the forces behind the upcoming event in Washington?
Joanie Kresich: It’s an event called by a coalition of people and it’s meant to be an act of civil disobedience. The implication is that most people who are coming are willing to be arrested.
Linda Kenoyer: It’s a sit-in three weeks long and each day there will be a group of people who come and sit at the White House fence. The National Park Service has control of the area and they arrest people who won’t leave.
Margot Kidder: Writers Bill McKibbon and Wendell Berry are among the organizers for the event. McKibbon is a science writer and Barry is an essayist and novelist and both have been enviornmental writers for many years. In the coalition is pretty much every big environmental group in the United States. Naomi Klein will hpefully be coming from Canada. I’m praying Tantoo Cardinal will also be coming from Canada whose people have been directly affected by the tar stands exploration in their country and are dying from horrible diseases that no one is paying any attention to.
Kresich: Another organizer is Jim Hansen who is a NASA climate scientist. These are just some of the people who are encouraging regular citizens to join them.
LC: What is the scope of the expanded Keystone XL Pipeline?
Kresich: It’s a planned oil pipeline, 3-feet wide in diameter, to go from Alberta all the way through parts of Montana, and South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, crossing many rivers and digging a deep furrow though quite a lot of private land they have access to through eminent domain. Also through wilderness areas, parks, without any regard for the possible environmental destruction of those areas.
Kenoyer: And it will go through a large part of the Ogallala Aquifer which is the biggest freshwater aquifer in the United States.
LC: What are possible implications of the Keystone XL pipeline construction?
Kidder: I think it’s important to point out two things: there’s a protest about this pipeline coming through Montana and there’s a local aspect to it. But one of the real horrific results of letting this happen is that we’re going to quadruple and quadruple again the output of the tar sands in Alberta because there is basically no governmental control, environmentally, in Canada over the oil and gas industry, far less than there is here. The tar sands is the biggest carbon emitter on the planet. If you quadruple that, it’s using up something like 20 percent of Canada’s allowed emissions alone. It’s really shocking
Kenoyer: The actual extraction of the oil from the tar sands uses huge quantities of water, and emits huge quantities of carbon, just in the extraction. The oil that they get out is not the crude oil that comes in liquid from the ground, it has natural gas mixed in it and is highly corrosive. Refining it is a different process which uses even more carbon in the act of refining. Saying it will increase the carbon output is not that we’re making all this oil available and we’re going to burn it—that’s just like any other oil, it’s a carbon emitter. But the actual production of the oil produces more carbon than any of the other ways you could produce. They’ve known the tar sands were full of oil for a long time, but it was never economically worth it because of the environmental cost, the amount of water that was needed, or the amount of energy that was needed to extract and refine it. Recently, the cost of oil has gone up enough they are willing to sacrifice all those things.
Kresich: As well as sacrificing the future of the climate for future generations.
LC: Why petition the federal government, rather than local or legislative branches?
Kenoyer: This is a Canadian company that wants to build on American land, this is not an American company. So in order for a foreign company to get eminent domain, to get the permits to do this, they have to go through the State Department. This is a foreign diplomacy issue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the person who gave the recommendation to approve it and the House of Representatives passed a resolution encouraging her to recommend the approval, but President Obama has the final say. He either approves it or not. Congress doesn’t get to decide this. It’s an international diplomacy issue.
Kidder: The oil and gas companies are our government now. Obama in the fall will either sign or not sign to allow approval for the pipeline, but of course it looks like he will sign something allowing this to happen. He’s under great pressure from both Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada who is from a hard-core conservative party, and Hillary Clinton.
Kresich: The Environmental Protection agency (EPA) has not been fully heard on this issue, either.
Kidder: Obama is basically waiting for the EPA to say ‘This is fine, this is all going to be fine. This is the latest technology,” which it always is until it becomes obsolete.
LC: What are some of the regional implications of building the pipeline?
Kidder: The tar sands oil is corrosive and all the wonderful promises the industry gives about these pipelines that are never going to burst (just like they didn’t burst up there in Laurel) are ludicrous and moot points. If you’ve been watching television there’s been an enormous number of ads for the ‘wonderful-ness’ of tar sands extraction and how many jobs will be created and bring in and it’s all just hogwash.
Kenoyer: In terms of Montana there are a number of points that no matter where you stand on oil and the climate, there are a couple of things for Montanans to consider. One is this is a Canadian company building with Canadian labor and Asian parts so it’s not like it’s bringing money into our economy other than taxes to the state. So as far as the state of Montana goes, there’s not a whole lot for us to benefit from. The main benefit to Americans for bringing this is so-called energy security that we would be getting oil from Canada instead of from the Middle East. TransCanada has already built one pipeline in the United States and it leaked something like 11 or 12 times in the first twelve months of operation. Most of them were small leaks, but one of them set off a little oil geyser in somebody’s farm field. Even their own risk assessments say it should leak about once every seven years, and they are talking about small leaks so that’s not the experience they have actually had already with the first Keystone pipeline.
Kidder: Along with the risk of leaks and spills they are talking about building roads to bring machinery to Canada to extract the oil from the sands. It’s illegal to directly import this machinery to Canada for all sorts of trade laws but it can be brought into the United States and up into Canada.
Kenoyer: They bring this machinery by ship to Lewiston, Idaho up the Columbia and the Snake rivers and they offload it on to trucks. These trucks are too big to go on the two-lane highway from there (Highway 12) so they are going to have to widen the highway which is the highway up the Lochsa river and through Missoula and past the Rocky Mountain front. It was approved to do that, but they recently had a judge put a hold on it. It’s still an ongoing issue.
LC: What are the proposed benefits of building the pipeline?
Kenoyer: Their big push is it’s going to bring energy security, and there are going to be some American oil companies involved in getting the oil and getting it to the refineries and selling it to Americans at a huge profit. The bigger issue here is whether or not buying oil and extracting oil at any price is really what we want to do. In the long run, the way to stop what’s happening in Alberta that’s so destructive is to move away from our dependance and our extravagant use of oil. Things like the recent compromise decision to require the production of American vehicles to average about 54 mpg as of 2025 or so. The administration just announced this new policy and it’s a good step. But in the long run what we need to do is get us off of oil: transporation, production of plastics and all sorts of things. We need to start looking for other solutions rather than just guzzling oil. Our entire culture, our entire economy, everything is based on the continued and accelerating use of an unsustainable resource.
Kidder: And we are in complete denial about the realities of climate change, which is a huge component of this.
LC: How is the construction of the pipeline relevant to climate changes?
Kresich: NASA scientist Jim Hansen has been quoted as saying that if this tar sands extraction and pipeline goes through, it’s game over for the climate. That’s a pretty strong statement coming from a scientist.
Kenoyer: Hansen says if the tar sands are developed, it will increase the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by nearly 50 percent and that’s what he means when he says ‘game over.’
Kidder: It goes back to the fact that they will then triple and quadruple production because they have no restraints in Canada. We have no control over the politicians in Canada and Steven Harper—who doesn’t bring much to Parliment, he just decrees—he is an oil man from Alberta and he’s all for this. It’s about short-term greed over any kind of common sense.
Kresich: It’s also about not doing what needs to be done which is turning away from oil and moving toward sustainable sources of energy. It’s doing the opposite. This is not like one more small oil field. Because of the way the oil is constituted, the kind of energy it takes to get it out, the way it endangers all kinds of things in the transport, the actual burning of it releases more carbon, it’s a disaster.
Kidder: It would be global disaster, not just for Canada and the states.
Kresich: It’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing.
LC: What has the local response been to your group’s proposed actions in Washington?
Kidder: Locally, the response has been extraordinary. People say, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this.’ There’s more awareness about this since the oil spill in Laurel than before but there is I think a great awareness of this pipeline and what it will do.
Kresich: People watched what happened with the oil spill in Laurel. That was a 12-inch pipe. This pipe is going to be three feet in diameter. So just imagine the difference. And, of course, it’s going almost 2,000 miles. There’s no way to monitor it night and day every foot of those 2,000 miles. When the spills happen, they will really, really, really do damage and there is no way they will not.
Kidder: The spills will happen. It’s an inevitable they will happen. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s how many and how soon.
Kenoyer: Oil spills are only one aspect of this but it’s an important one for people here to think about. The people who have to live with those spills don’t forget about it. The toxic exposure that families and farmers and fisherman have is going to be lasting for a very long time. I think we need to learn a lesson from this. There is no reason for us to take that risk and pay that price for someone else’s profit.
Kidder: There are so many fronts on which this is important: on the simple health front and on the environmental front. Look at what Exxon’s backup plan was for the Silvertip spill in Laurel: paper diapers and paper towels. If that is their backup plan, can you imagine what they are going to do with paper towels in a catastrophic spill?
LC: What do you consider the global significance of building the Keystone XL pipeline?
Kresich: We have an obligation to the people of the future, an obligation to our children, our grandchildren, to the future generations and we have to stop this and it’s all there is to it.
Kidder: It’s time for all of us in the United States to stop sitting here with inertia and watching our government and other governments destroy the planet in the name of greed. We’re just sitting back and saying, ‘It’s too depressing, I won’t watch the news.’ It’s time to move on from writing letters to the editor to getting arrested. There’s got to be a huge uprising across the country.
LC: Why make the journey to Washington?
Kenoyer: President Obama in his campaign and in his inauguration speech, he asked supporters to keep pressuring him once he was in office to do the right thing, and he needs the pressure.
Kidder: Yes, it’s time for anger and action. We’d love to encourage people to join us in Washington or contribute to help with our trip in any way.
Kresich: There’s always something we can do. Do something.
For more information about the tar sands issue, please contact Joanie Kresich at 222-5279
Oil sands consist of sand coated in water and a sticky film of bitumen, a heavy oil. The bitumen can be rinsed from the sand and refined into fuels. In some cases, the bitumen-encased sand can be pumped from wells like standard oil, but in Athabasca, the sands are at or near the surface. Here, oil companies scoop the sand from the surface after stripping off overlying vegetation and top soil. The result is illustrated in this true-color image. Earthy open-pit mines and muddy tailing ponds replaced the dark green boreal forest. The Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s EO-1 satellite acquired the image on July 29, 2009