Friday, 8 March 2013

Tar Sands Resistance: The Fight For Our Lives

posted 3/8/2013 by the Salt City Sinner

The fact that the earth’s atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need, and that if something runs out it can be seamlessly replaced by another resource that we can endlessly extract. But it is not just the atmosphere that we have exploited beyond its capacity to recover—we are doing the same to the oceans, to freshwater, to topsoil and to biodiversity. The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence. 
- Naomi Klein, Capitalism vs. the Climate

Spend even one winter in the Salt Lake valley, and you'll know exactly what Jello Biafra and the Melvins were driving at with the title of their 2004 LP "Never Breathe What You Can't See." ( * )

During a relatively mild  inversion , you'll see what you breathe as you descend into SLC from Park City or off of the benches; a ghastly shroud draped over the city, the ugly yellow-brown of an old bruise. The air tastes oily and tickles your throat, and you develop a mysterious dry cough. On bad days it's like a fog bank has rolled in off of the river or out of the bay - except that there is no bay or river to explain it.

Air quality you can taste!
Nationwide, there is a groundswell of activism from those opposed to our worldwide unsustainable carbon inferno - the type of behavior that has literally rendered the air lethal in Utah ("...air pollution is linked to premature death, cancer, and long-term damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems," quoth the University of Utah's  FAQ  on the subject).

On  Grist  (an excellent blog about environmental issues), David Roberts writes:
Intensity wins in politics, as I’ve said many times before, even if ...its effects cannot be easily predicted. There are benefits to an activated, impassioned constituency and the social and political machinery that brings them together in large numbers.
Intensity is built through conflict, through the drawing of political and moral lines. That’s what activists like Bill McKibben are trying to do, with activist logic, not wonk logic, taking advantage of symbolism and opportunity.
March 16th through March 23rd marks Tar Sands Blockade's week of action. If you are interested, you can check out the events  here . Let's get some intensity going -- some of that "activated, impassioned" juiciness that Roberts writes about! And as with so many things (including both your A-B-Cs and your Do-Re-Mis), let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

What Are Tar Sands, What's Going On With Them, And Why Should I Care?

"Tar sands," or "oil sands," are a form of petroleum deposit. Unlike traditional oil deposits, the form of oil contained by tar sands -- known as bitumen -- is much thicker, thus the "tar" in tar sands. Bitumen, unlike conventional oil, is diffused through sand or loose sandstone, and requires either steam injection or dilution with other hydrocarbons or the injection of solvents to extract.

For a long time, tar sands extraction was low-tech and inefficient enough (more about that "inefficient" part in a moment) that it was not considered cost effective. Relatively low oil prices contributed to this view as well.

With the advent of steam injection and higher oil prices, tar sands are now profitable to extract, but at an exorbitant environmental price -- but since environmental impact is considered an " externality " by non-heterodox economists, don't worry!

Tar sands extraction is estimated to produce about 12% more carbon emissions per gallon of oil produced -- and keep in mind that that is just for extraction, so you can add that emissions tab to the larger emissions tab of the fuel once it's burned. Add to that the environmental costs of the strip mining, steam injection, or solvent use required for extraction, and then add to that the increased costs n water and energy required to render the high-viscosity bitumen fit for transport by pipeline (and ignore, for now, the  risks  associated with those pipelines themselves), and you start to get some idea of what tar sands mean for the health of human beings and other living things with internal organs of various kinds.

What Are The National And Local Issues Raised By Tar Sands?

I'll give a quick and dirty summary here of two kinds of issues raised by tar sands extraction: the national question, raised primarily by the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the Utah issue, which addresses the fact that, in the United States, the primary locations of tar sands are public lands in  Eastern Utah .

The Keystone X?L Pipeline And The Tar Sands Blockade

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would be owned by TransCanada, would transport the extracted, diluted bitumen from the Alabsca oil sands of Alberta, Canda, to various refineries and markets in America's Midwest. The existing pipeline and the extension would, if completed, stretch for 2,147 miles.

Map courtesty of PBS

There are bushels of people who oppose the expansion of the Keystone pipeline in the United States, and it's not just the coven of filthy hippies, anarchists, and communists that I myself am numbered among who have misgivings about the project. Even Barack Obama, hardly an environmental hero, has been of two minds on the subject -- but what else is new? -- initially  opposing  the pipeline, but then  endorsing it  during last year's campaign.

The  Tar Sands Blockade  is comprised of a group of (largely) maskless superheroes who are dedicated to stopping Keystone in its tracks.  They  describe  themselves as "a coalition of affected Texas and Oklahoma residents and organizers using nonviolent direct action to physically stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline," although they welcome all comers, not just Texans and Oklahomans.

The TSB gives a  number  of reasons to oppose Keystone XL, which include the facts that it will contribute to climate change, the potential for spills, abuses of eminent domain associated with the project, the use of mystery solvents and the threat of water contamination, tribal sovereignty on Native American land, the list goes on and on.

Utah Tar Sands Resistance

While most of the world's bitumen-infused areas are in Alberta, Canada, and there are also substantial deposits in Venezuela, Russia, and Kazakhstan, here in the U.S., the lion's share of tar sands are here in Utah -- in Eastern Utah's public lands, to be precise.

Source - BLM

If anything, tar sands in Utah represent an even greater threat to Utah than the Keystone XL does to Oklahoma or Texas. Tar sands extraction here is every bit as bad as it is in Alberta, with a few added wrinkles.

First of all, Utah tar sands will be extracted through open pit mining (AKA "strip mining"), and the areas that contain the bitumen also contain diffuse Uranium and Vanadium, which will be released as lethal pollutants during the extraction process. Add to that the public subsidies of the strip mines' roads and power supply, the pollution costs of trucking bitumen, and the increased particulate pollution due to aridity from water depletion and you have a locally unique -- and horrifying -- list of reasons to oppose tar sands mining here.

Enter  Utah Tar Sands Resistance .

While UTSR does engage in protest and NVDA, they are also impressively dedicated to education and outreach on the issues surrounding tar sands extraction and the threats posed to Utahns by the petro-industrial complex. They've hosted teach-ins, capitol protests and educations, you name it.

How Do I Get Involved?

Nationally, the Tar Sands Blockade has a pretty straightforward way to get involved -- you can  send them money ! Alternately, you can  plan an action  or  find an action  near you.

Utah Tar Sands Resistance will be holding a meeting on Sunday, 3/10/2013. [EDIT/UPDATE: it has been pointed out to me that this event is not actually a Utah Tar Sands Resistance sponsored event, but is being conducted by the Unitarians.] As UTSR explains,
The Environmental Ministry at First Unitarian Church is hosting a video chat with Bill McKibben and organizers, which will cover the current political landscape and some ideas for what’s coming next for the climate movement (Keystone XL, divestment, non-violent direct action). Afterwards there will be time for local discussions about both national plans and our local SLC/UT plans (tar sands, air quality, refineries, divestment, upcoming actions) -- generating new ideas, or making existing ideas better. We will send our ideas back to, and the following week there will be a national conference call to report back on what everyone discussed, so we can build our plans together, and learn from each other. LOCATION of the national conference call "to be determined.” This event is free and open to the public.
Not only is it free and open to the public -- it's a potluck! If you're interested, drop by and feel free to bring some tasty eats and your own plate / cup / utensils. The meeting is at First Unitarian Church's Eliot Hall, located at 569 S. 1300 E., Salt Lake City, and starts at 5:00 PM MST.

Looking for something a little more hands-on? UTSR will be holding a rally:
On Saturday, March 23 at noon, Utah Tar Sands Resistance and allies will rally together at the Chevron refinery (at 2300 N, 1100 W) as part of the cross-continental Week of Actions to Stop Tar Sands Profiteers (March 16–23). Chevron is already refining toxic tar sands oil from Canada, and it plans to refine the oil from the first tar sands mine in the United States, set to begin in eastern Utah in 2013. We will rise up in solidarity to show investors that tar sands is a toxic investment.
You can find the Facebook page for Utah Tar Sands Resistance  here , and the page for the Chevron rally  here .

We live in an area where the perennially heraldic figure of the golden Angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake City LDS Temple, one of the most instantly recognizable icons of Mormonism's holiest site, shines down on us. Despite this, on a bad air day, the smog makes it look as though he is struggling to free himself from the rotting cerements of the grave.

Don't you want to live in a world where Moroni looks the way he is supposed to look?

Doesn't everyone?

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