Choking the oil sands – by Chris Sorensen, and Luiza Ch. Savage (Maclean’s Magazine – September 5, 2011)

Maclean’s is the largest circulation weekly news magazine in Canada, reporting on Canadian issues such as politics, pop culture, and current events.

Environmentalists are opening a new front in their war on Alberta oil—attacking pipeline projects vital to the industry’s future

Over the next few weeks, as many as 2,000 climate change protesters are expected to descend on Washington in an effort to draw more Americans into the debate over Alberta’s oil sands—one of the most carbon-intensive sources of fossil fuel on the planet. But this time, anti-oil sands groups aren’t focusing on the vast open pit mines near Fort McMurray, which one activist memorably compared to J. R. R. Tolkien’s fire-spewing and charcoal-covered realm of Mordor, but on a major pipeline project that the industry needs to move forward with its expansion plans.

Supported by such high-profile environmentalists and left-leaning luminaries as David Suzuki and Naomi Klein, the protesters, who will risk arrest during their White House sit-in, hope to stop President Barack Obama’s administration from approving the proposed 2,673-km Keystone XL pipeline that is being built by TransCanada Corp. and would move crude oil from northern Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, north of the border, anti-pipeline rallies are scheduled to take place over the next few months in Vancouver and Ottawa. In addition to the Keystone XL project, the Canadian rallies will also focus on a proposed 1,170-km pipeline, built by Enbridge Inc., that would connect northern Alberta to an oil-shipping terminal in Kitimat, B.C., running through an area that opponents claim is pristine wilderness and the habitat of a sacred species of bear.

It all amounts to a new front in the war environmentalists are waging against the oil sands. “I really think this should be seen as part of a global campaign that’s been gaining steam against the tar sands, which has used various pressure points,” Klein told Maclean’s. “Some are demonstrations, others are consumer-based strategies to put pressure on companies not to use oil from the tar sands, while others have employed shareholder activism against companies like Shell and BP. This is just another piece of the puzzle.”

While pipelines carrying potentially dangerous liquids are nothing new in North America (there’s already enough pipeline in Canada alone to wrap around the globe 2½ times), anti-oil sands groups have found a receptive audience in local communities along proposed pipeline routes. (Although it’s questionable whether farmers in the American Midwest and First Nations in B.C.’s Interior are as worried about planetary catastrophe as they are about a potential leak in their backyard.)

The industry, meanwhile, is critical of the activists’ strategy. Oil sands proponents point out that, pipelines or not, as long as the world has an unquenchable thirst for cheap energy, Alberta’s vast reserves will continue to be extracted from the sandy soil, whether through open pit mines or in situ technologies, and sent to refineries for processing. And it’s not as if moving three million barrels of crude every day on diesel-swilling trucks or trains is much better for the environment.

Even so, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the challenge of tapping the world’s second-largest reserves is no longer limited to the enormous costs associated with getting the oil out of the ground. It now also includes the long, drawn-out, and increasingly politically charged process of trying to deliver it to paying customers.

Opposition to TransCanada’s Keystone XL has been heating up in the U.S. all summer. The planned 36-inch pipeline would stretch from Hardisty, Alta., to refineries around Port Arthur, Texas. It’s an expansion of TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline that terminates in Illinois, and would more than triple the existing pipeline’s capacity to 1.3 million barrels per day.

While environmentalists have posed a variety of concerns about the pipeline’s safety along the route, the Keystone XL has emerged as a national environmental cause due to concerns over the greenhouse gas emissions produced in Alberta—and more generally as a symbol of entrenching America’s dependence on fossil fuels. “It just makes it easier to prolong that addiction if we come up with a new dealer—and that is what Canada is,” says Bill McKibben, a leading U.S. environmentalist who organized the Washington rally. He explains the oil sands to Americans as “the world’s second-largest pool of carbon on Earth after Saudi Arabia,” and accuses Canada of losing its integrity by heavily promoting the projects in the U.S. “Being a junkie is not a very dignified position, and being a dealer is not a very honourable position either,” he says.

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