February 25, 2013
By Kyle Dang
College of Marin students and instructors attended a satellite protest in support of an environmental movement to stop a cross-country natural gas pipeline on February 17. Sixteen members of the newly reformed Environmental Action Committee took the blank ferry to San Francisco and joined what one of the main organizers of the event, 350.org, claimed was just under 5,000 people. The San Francisco protest was part of a larger group of demonstrations happening across the nation. Collectively, it was the largest climate rally in our nation’s history. The primary reasoning for the protest is the fear that the pipeline will destroy local environments and poison the land surrounding it.
“It was my first protest. I’ve never gone out and done something like this before,” said Elba Allen, a COM student and roster member of the EAC. “I’ve always wanted to, but it’s hard working and going to school. It was nice to go out and do my part, and feel a part of the community. It definitely had a positive impact on me.”
Other EAC members who attended the protest echoed the sentiment.
“I haven’t been to a protest in quite a few years and I forgot about the group camaraderie you feel with complete strangers. It’s like cheering for a sports team,” said member Emily Wilson.
The pipeline is being built by the Canadian company TransCanada, and will extend all the way from Alberta, Canada, to Steel City, Nebraska. Called the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, the over 1,000 mile long pipeline will carry oil from the Tar Sands mines in Alberta to American refineries along the gulf coast. Because the pipeline will cross the international border between the United States of America and Canada, and is therefore an executive decision, the decision rests directly on the shoulder’s of one man: President Barack Obama.
The issue of whether or not to allow the pipeline is a political hornet’s nest for President Obama. In the past two elections, a great deal of Obama’s support was based in environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which attended the protests in Washington D.C. This is the first act of civil disobedience that the Sierra Club has ever participated in during its 120 year-old history.
The reason a traditionally non-activist group like the Sierra Club would participate in a march through Washington D.C. is the fear that Obama might not make what they consider to be the correct decision.
“Obama can veto the pipeline, and he did two and a half years ago,” said Joe Mueller, professor of Biology at COM, and protest attendee. “However, oil companies and other lobbyists have put major pressure on Obama, and he OK’d the southern leg of the construction.”
The southern part of the construction is actually called the Gulf Coast Project by TransCanada, and will be connected to the Keystone pipeline, allowing for the movement of crude oil to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
However, the decision is not so cut and dry for President Obama. There is a great deal of pressure being applied to the president from a variety of sources, most of whom have a financial stake in the pipeline finishing.
Director of the NASA Institute of Space Studies James Hansen has been warning the government and the public about the dangers of climate change for the past 30 years. In an interview with SolveClimate he said, “If the Tar Sands are thrown in to the mix it’s game over.” The phrase “game over” has become a galvanizing rally cry for environmentalists who fear that the introduction of the Tar Sands crude oil as an energy source will irreversibly damage the global environment.
“If released all at once, the known tar sands resource is equivalent to 150 parts per million. As is the case with other fossil fuel sources, the amount in the air declines to about 20 percent after 1,000 years,” said Hansen in an interview with SolveClimate news. “Of course, only a small fraction of the resource is economically recoverable at the moment. But if you decide you are going to continue your addiction and build a big pipeline to Texas, the economically extractable oil will steadily grow over time. Moreover the known resources would grow because there is plenty more to be discovered.”
COM’s newly re-instated Environmental Action Club share this perspective. Though it has existed for over 50 years, the club has been all but dead in recent years. President Susan Arati has revived it with a roster of 26 COM students, most of whom are enrolled in Professor Joe Mueller’s Environmental Science class.
“We were participants of the protest in support of the protests in D.C. and the other satellite protests,” said Arati, “It was an amazing experience. There were police there but I didn’t feel any fear. They seemed accepting, if not supporting, of the demonstration.”
The EAC shares the same fears as many environmentalists. The fear is that even beyond the destruction of local environments for construction, long-term effects such as the leaking of oil and the increase in greenhouse emissions will slowly poison the land.
“The pipe runs right over the aquifer for something like five states. It’s an environmental disaster,” said Susan Arati.
The Ogallala Aquifer actually supplies water for eight states. Over two million people rely on the aquifer for drinking water and to support the $20 billion agricultural economy in that area.
“Have you ever seen pictures of the destruction?” said Joe Mueller. “It’s worth taking a look at, as far as the eye can see it’s [the land] just destroyed, and these lands used to be important parts of the migratory path of birds and other animals.”
Proponents of the pipeline disagree with the “doomsaying” of environmentalists. According to TransCanada’s website, “At TransCanada, environmental responsibility is more than just talk. We translate our words into actions by applying an environmental focus to the complete lifecycle of our projects, from the initial concept to design and construction. TransCanada conducts its business activities in compliance with all applicable environmental legislation and regulations to protect the environment. An important first step in a pipeline projects is to develop an understanding of the existing environmental conditions along the route so that we can anticipate and limit environmental impacts to the greatest extent practical.”
However, environmentalists scoff at the idea of TransCanada being environmentally responsible. The current Keystone pipeline carries 500,000 thousand barrels of oil a day. Only a year old, sixteen spills have already been reported.
The Environmental Action club and several other COM students who attended the protest are optimistic.
“[Obama] can do this, he really can. He has the power in his pen, he doesn’t have to convince any legislators,” said Arati.
For now, it is a waiting game. The lines are drawn and both sides have presented their arguments, and now Obama must make a decision.