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Tar Sands Action Gives Climate Movement Momentum

On Friday, the State Department released its final environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline. Like tar sands actionthe two preliminary statements before it – which the Environmental Protection Agency deemed inadequate – the State Department has determined that the pipeline would produce “limited adverse” effects.

Disagreement with this finding is precisely why 2,000 people – me among them – have pledged to risk arrest at the White House by participating in non-violent civil disobedience. The timing of the two-week long tar sands protest targeting the Obama administration was no coincidence but was specifically intended to coincide with the State Departments report. Contrary to the report’s main conclusion, the proposed 1,661-mile pipeline could have extremely adverse effects on the climate, drinking water and public health.

The proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline would run from Canada through the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, where refineries would make oil available for export.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation groundwater. A spill would clearly be devastating.

During the past 20 years, there have been more than 140 pipeline spills per year, and there have already been at least 12 spills in the original Keystone’s first year of operation. In fact a recent study by University of Nebraska professor John S. Stansbury shows that TransCanada has vastly underestimated dangers posed by the pipeline. The study reveals that the Keystone XL pipeline could have up to 91 spills over 50 years, compared to TransCanada’s claims that there would be only 11.

Moreover, the pipeline would transport the dirtiest oil in the world. Tar sands oil contains three to four times as much carbon, five times as much lead, six times as much nitrogen and 11 times as much sulfur as is found in conventional crude oil. The extraction and processing tar sands oil is very energy intensive. In fact, one estimate projects that 3 gallons of gas will be needed to produce 4 or 5 gallons of gas from tar sands.

Exploitation of the tar sands has prompted climatologists James Hansen to declare “game over” on our ability to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts. Meanwhile, those living near the refineries that process the tar sands will be directly impacted by the dangerous pollutants released into the air during the refining process.

All of these reasons motivated me to make the decision to go to the White House this week, participate in the sit-in and be arrested. But beyond that, the tar sands action has offered an opportunity to experience the kind of solidarity that you can’t mimic sitting at a computer in the center of the political world. The discomfort of being cuffed, patted down or riding in a paddy wagon pales in comparison to the comfort of feeling part of a cause bigger than you.

While certainly the primary goal, the tar sands action is more than just a tactic aimed at putting pressure on the Obama administration – it’s about building a movement. The night before the protest, I participated in a four-hour training with all the folks I’d be risking arrest with. Among the people I met were a group of grandmothers from Montana, a teacher from Connecticut and those like myself who work on climate and energy policy every day and were ready to try a new approach. Of the 59 of us that were arrested on Aug. 23, only a handful had every participated in civil disobedience before – including me. What I found out was civil disobedience often means a lot of waiting – waiting to be arrested, waiting in the paddy wagon to be taken to the station and waiting at the station to be processed. During that time, relationships are being built and commitment is being deepened, and those relations are central to the success of a movement.

The State Department’s report indicates that maybe the fix is in for the Keystone XL pipeline.  Word on the street is TransCanada is already touting victory and getting their ducks in a row by lining up contractors, negotiating rights of way and arranging the supply of pipe and valves. But the climate movement will come out the other end of the battle stronger and even more determined to win the climate war.