The on-going struggle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline — which if built would carry oil produced from Canadian tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma and Illinois — is the latest attempt to make the process of human-caused climate change concrete and visible so we can try to slow it down. Between August 20 and September 3, 1,252 people sat-in outside the White House and were arrested to pressure President Obama to reject Keystone XL — one of the largest eco civil disobedience actions since the anti-nuclear power movement in the 1980s.
Due to an unusual legal quirk, Obama has personal authority to deny a permit for construction. His State Department found in its final environmental impact statement released August 26 that the project would have “limited adverse environmental impacts” and Obama is expected to approve construction of Keystone XL later this fall, bowing to the power of the fossil fuel industry and their “jobs” propaganda. Activists are keeping up the pressure to get him to change his mind.
No matter how the decision goes on this particular project, organizing against climate change is entering a new phase. After years of education, polite activism and international meetings, the power structure is all talk and no action. Obama and the big oil companies know that it makes no sense to invest $7 billion building long-term oil infrastructure like Keystone XL if they’re serious about limiting emissions, especially when alternative energy projects are starved for funding. The struggle against tar sands exposes the dead end of the corporate / industrial system’s fossil fuel dependence.
Producing tar sand oil is more difficult and expensive than producing conventional oil and generates more carbon dioxide (C02) emissions. More importantly, expanding production of unconventional oil reserves like tar sands dramatically increases the globe’s available oil reserves. The more oil and other fossil fuels are available, the more may ultimately be burned, raising atmospheric CO2 levels and creating greater climate change.
Keystone XL shows that as easy-to-produce oil runs out, the current economic and political system will invest whatever is necessary to find more oil to prop up the status quo oil / fossil fuel dependent system. The market on its own will not lead the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy. Only organized resistance against the power structure can stop climate change.
To be successful, climate change activism has to move beyond its single-issue, reform orientation and understand that it is part of a larger struggle. On one side are corporations and valueless economic systems that promote efficiency for its own sake, divorced from any concern for human happiness or the health of the earth. On the other side are human beings and our love for freedom, pleasure, beauty, and life. At bottom, the struggle to stop climate change is a struggle of values and for meaning.
You are already burning oil produced from tar sands in Canada. In fact, the Keystone XL pipeline is just an expansion of the already existing and operating Keystone pipeline, which already brings 590,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day to the US. Keystone XL would expand imports by 510,000 barrels to 1.1 million barrels per day, which would be 5 percent of US consumption and 9 percent of US imports. Twenty-percent of US oil imports are now from Canada — Canada supplies more US oil than any other country — and about half of Canadian oil production is from tar sands.
To understand why Keystone XL is different from other oil pipelines, you have to understand how radically different oil produced from tar sands is from what most people think of as “oil.”
“Unconventional” oil is the innocent name for oil supplies like tar stands that are not liquid and are therefore not generally counted as part of the world’s oil reserves. There are several times the quantity of unconventional oil reserves as there are conventional oil reserves — perhaps more than 5 trillion barrels vs. 1.3 trillion barrels for conventional oil.
The world burns about 89 million barrels of oil per day or 30 billion barrels of oil per year, so 1.3 trillion barrels of conventional oil will be exhausted in about 45 years. If one includes unconventional oil reserves in the world total, the current oil-dependent system can operate for more than another 100 years.
If industrial society burns all of the conventional oil and then is able to continue its current fossil fuel dependence by burning unconventional oil reserves, as well as the much larger supplies of coal and natural gas, atmospheric concentrations of CO2, as well as other ecological consequences of industrialization, are likely to get much worse.
Unconventional oil supplies are different from traditional oil reserves because they are more difficult and expensive to remove from the ground and turn into usable fuels. Tar sand oil, for example, is virtually solid — a mixture of sand and heavy tar — and therefore cannot simply be pumped from the ground like regular oil.
The first commercial exploitation of tar sands was the Suncor strip mine opened in 1967. Tar sands are dug out of the ground, loaded into huge trucks that can haul 400 tons of material (the largest trucks on earth) and mixed with hot water and chemicals to make the ore liquid enough to be pumped to a treatment plant. There, tar is skimmed off the top of the mixture and chemically treated to make synthetic crude oil. Two tons of sand must be mined to get one barrel of oil (1/8 of a ton). The process uses massive amount of water and energy and produces massive amounts of waste stored in huge lakes.
More recently, the oil industry has developed special drilling techniques to extract oil from tar sands without digging up the tar sands. While this might seem less environmentally disruptive than a massive strip mine, these processes are energy intensive and produce unique types of pollution.
In one method as known Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), oil workers drill two horizontal wells that can extend for miles, one 5 meters above the other. Drillers pump high temperature steam into the upper well, sometimes for months at a time, to heat the tar sands around the top well. The steam is heated by burning huge amounts of natural gas. As the tar heats up, it flows to the well on the bottom and can be pumped to the surface. Another method called Vapor Extraction Process (VAPEX) injects solvents, not steam, into the upper well to dissolve the tar. In Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI), oil companies pump air underground and then set the underground tar on fire to heat the tar so it will flow to a horizontal production well.
What all these methods share are greater environmental costs compared to regular oil production. Each unit of energy used to produce tar sand oil creates 6-9 units of energy — well below traditional oil production. The CO2 emitted producing oil from tar sands makes burning a gallon of tar sand oil up to 20 percent dirtier than regular oil, or almost as carbon intensive per unit of energy as coal, which is normally the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. Tar sands production also uses a lot of water — roughly 2 – 4.5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced.
Tar sands oil production is the face of things to come. As the easy to exploit oil begins to run out, oil companies are moving into deeper waters and more inconvenient corners of the world to keep the oil flowing — and investing hundreds of billions of dollars to develop unconventional oil supplies. Keystone XL is a long-term investment in continued oil dependence — money not available to develop alternatives to fossil fuels.
Perhaps one reason why climate activism hasn’t significantly slowed fossil fuel development or redirected investment towards alternatives is because the climate problem is too big to comprehend. Keystone XL gives a face to the problem. Tar sands are the worst of the fossil fuels — the most desperate and the least sustainable.
But are tar sands really fundamentally different from other fossil fuels? No. All fossil fuels are unsustainable — dependent on non-renewable, limited resources. Burning any fossil fuel from “clean” natural gas to tar sand oil in your Prius contributes to climate change. Fossil fuels represent simplistic, short-term, means to an end technology. While everyone knows that burning oil isn’t sustainable or good for the planet, we use emotional denial to get through the day — there is no way for any of us to continue our current lifestyles without fossil fuels.
The real issue is not just saying “no thank you” to tar sands oil or fossil fuels in general. The current system focuses on resources, production, power, technology and trade. Human beings and what makes our lives worth living — love, pleasure, freedom, self-expression, engagement with others and the world around us — are frustrating obstacles to efficiency and increasing corporate profits. If we’re lucky and obedient workers, we get to enjoy our “hobbies” on the weekend.
It’s time to challenge the out-of-control economic and political systems that steal our lives and are destroying the earth. While we can’t continue our current lifestyles without fossil fuels, who wants to, anyway? The highly centralized, highly managed, push-button consumer world is not freeing us, making our lives meaningful or making us happy. The system needs oil, but people got along just fine without it for thousands of years. We need to build a world in which human needs come before the needs of the system so we can build a new world without oil.