Photo by Mary Anne Andrei/Bold Nebraska.
Depending who you believe, between 30,000 and 50,000 demonstrators showed up in Washington D.C. this past weekend to protest TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline plans in northern Nebraska.
Most news reports made a point of mentioning that there was a dispute over the number on Capitol Hill for the Forward on Climate rally, dubbed by enviro groups as the biggest in U.S. history. But where Keystone is concerned, we're past the point of arguing about numbers.
The pipeline proposal has already become an important symbol: ground zero in the battle for hearts and minds over climate change in the United States. The question is, will it become a casualty of the 180 degree turn in energy politics in the U.S. signaled by President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last Tuesday?
Without Keystone, which has already been delayed once under Obama, there is no route for tar sands producers to get their crude to U.S. refineries in the Gulf and from there to world markets. For tar sands producers much, maybe everything, is riding on its approval - barring the building of pipelines from the tar sands east through Quebec and west to the British Columbia coast, neither of which are doable in the near future.
And time is running out. As CIBC's World Market Outlook pointed out late last year, 2013 will be "a defining year for pipeline politics," with "little room for error/politicking in bringing on new pipeline capacity."
Which is why Big Oil lobbyists and the HarperCons have been burning up the phone lines, working the backrooms and calling in IOUs in order to sell U.S. legislators on Keystone in the face of growing public opposition.
Obama's call for action on climate change in his State of Union, made tar sands pushers particularly nervous. Obama didn't mention Keystone specifically in his speech. He didn't have to.
Implicit in his remarks on climate change, and confirmed by Obama's Ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, in interviews that followed with a number of Canadian news outlets, is that Canada cleaning up its environmental act is key to the U.S. giving the go-ahead to Keystone.
Double-standard, cried the Globe in an editorial. Why single out Canada when U.S. coal accounts for more greenhouse gases than the tar sands? True enough. Carbon produced from coal-generated power in the U.S. exceeds that given off by the tar sands.
But lost in that argument is the fact tar sands production requires huge amounts of water; that massive swaths of forest have been lost to tar sands development; that the waste produced from the extraction process has to be stored in huge tailings ponds the size of lakes; and that tar sands crude is so thick that it has to be infused with benzene and other harmful toxins to move it through pipelines, which increases the risk of spills.
The Globe's moral outrage is misplaced. When it comes to stewardship of our planet, Canada has no credibility left. The HarperCons have seen to that, twisting arms to get countries to accept our dirty oil abroad and gutting environmental protections at home - that is, when they weren't labeling environmentalists extremists or silencing government scientists on global warming.
Now we're asking Americans to build a pipeline that will ensure we're pumping tar sands crude at a rate of 900,0000 barrels a day, and all the toxins that go with it, for years to come? Talk about a double-standard.
Plenty of energy has been expended by the federal government and the Big Oil lobby, selling tar sands crude as the "ethical" and "secure" choice compared to conventional crude from the Middle East. In the wake of growing resistance Stateside, there's been an effort by the HarperCons to appear more conciliatory on the eco file.
Just before this weekend's D.C. protest came word that the feds are speeding up efforts to meet their own greenhouse gas emission targets (remember, we pulled out of our Kyoto commitments). The timing of that news was interesting, if not calculated. The last time we heard claims from the feds of meeting emission targets, there was some trickery with the numbers. We were in fact polluting more.
Now more delicate tar sands news for the feds to manage. Seems those ponds built to contain the toxic stew created by tar sands production are not as foolproof as the government has been claiming.
According to an internal memo obtained by Postmedia through Access to Information the ponds are leaking toxic contaminants into the environment. At this past weekend's rally on Capitol Hill, those protesting TransCanada's plans were not only climate change activists and environmentalists (here's looking at you Darryl Hannah), but ranchers and farmers.
It's a powerful mix that has coalesced against Keystone. Among them: property rights and landowner types more comfortable with the hard right of the Republican Party than the environmental movement.
To them, Keystone poses not only a potential environmental risk. It represents more - an "assault" on individual property rights, private landowners being forced to subsidize the private interests of "foreign" corporations.
South of the border, the political will to deal with global warming can't be underestimated either, especially not with a president who doesn't have to concern himself with re-election - and seems determined to make his mark on the climate change debate.