Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Keystone XL protests in DC draw Californians, raise stakes for 2012

We're about halfway through a 2-week protest at the White House in Washington over the proposed KeystoneXL pipeline. More than three hundred people have been arrested so far. Some of them are and will be Californians. The project's backed by a Canadian conglomerate that wants to deliver Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin crude oil through the pipe to Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. To find out why Californians are involved, read on. 

Environmentalists call "sedimentary basin crude oil" tar sands. As does the Argonne National Laboratory - which describes in its EIS for Utah tar sands a resource-intensive process of pulling the oil out of them: it takes a lot of water and energy to get the energy out. Chemicals are added to the tar sands to transport them for processing. This ain't black tea, Beverly Hillbillies style. A picture provided to the national lab by Suncor Energy shows a handful of the stuff. 

The Department of State's involved because it crosses a border. A federal executive order requires that the Secretary of State and the President review such projects - and sign off on them only if they're in the national interest. Today the State Department released a report finding that the pipeline would cause minimum environmental impact, and recommending that the project proceed. All the materials are on the State Department's website.

They include comments that find a different environmental risk from the Environmental Protection Agency - which gets a say too, under federal rules. Back in July, the EPA raised questions about chemicals in the pipeline, the carbon footprint of oil-sands based crude, the potential harm to low-income neighborhoods near the pipeline, and of course, the risks of oil spills. 

Environmental activists are skeptical about how this will all play out. But they're not hedging their bets: they're upping pressure on President Obama to turn the project back. Climate scientist James Hansen will speak at the National Press Club Monday; then he expects to get arrested. He told ClimateWire that the U.S. approval of KeystoneXL would be like an addict accepting a dirty needle from another addict. 

States directly implicated in this project are Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. To a lesser extent, North Dakota, Missouri and Illinois are involved in the delivery infrastructure.

But we've got Californians mixed up in all this too. (And some of our favorite things - celebrities.) Back in March, a group of mayors including Patrick J. Morris of San Bernardino, and the mayors of Pleasanton, Richmond, Berkeley and West Sacramento, wrote to Hillary Clinton, the State Department Chief, and said they were worried Keystone XL would "undermine the good work being done in local communities across the country to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on oil." 

And now I've heard about some people from Sacramento who are en route to DC to take part in week 2 of the action. The No Tar Sands Caravan is en route to DC; they'll arrive tomorrow. Caravan participant Karen Enger of Rocklin, California, says, "Our planet's resources belong to all of us - they are not to be exploited for profit for the benefit of a few and the marginalization of the many. And...I am a mother. Fighting to protect the earth and climate for my our young is primal." I'm intrigued to see how wide this wave of activism will spread. 

What's most unusual about all of this is the way environmental groups are raising the stakes for the President by putting their support for Obama on the line in 2012 over this issue. Christa Marshall of ClimateWire reports today: 

"The president is counting on the fact that environmentalists don't have anywhere else to go in 2012," said Zelizer. "The risk is that they won't do much to help him get re-elected, and that can make a huge difference in key districts."

Nine of the nation's green groups signaled this week that Keystone XL is a political test, writing a letter to the president with the words: "If you block it, you will trigger a surge of enthusiasm from the green base that supported you so strongly in the last election. We expect nothing less."

I'm not sure this is getting the attention it deserves, even in the arid desert of August news.