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The Biggest Environmental Crime in History?

Called by Greenpeace ‘the biggest environmental crime in history’, the expansion of oil production from Canadian tar sands is likely to get a major boost in November, courtesy of the Obama Administration.  The estimated recoverable oil trapped in low-grade deposits of tar sands that require ripping up Canada’s boreal forest, a major carbon sink, is second in quantity only to Saudi Arabian oil reserves.

The amount of energy and water  required to make the oil useable, not to mention burning the oil itself, will put so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that internationally renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen has said that extracting and refining the oil means it’s “essentially game over” in the global battle to avoid catastrophic climate change.  The question needs to be asked: how did we get from a president who once promised real action on climate change to a man who is complicit in the environmental crime of the century?  And having taken on that question, how should environmentalists respond?

Extracting oil from tar sands has only become economical as we have approached the End of the Age of Easy Oil and the price has shot above $100/barrel.  There’s plenty more out there but it’s dirty, dangerous, hard to extract and hence ripe for environmental calamities such as last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  This explains not only the development of Canadian tar sands, which require mining two tons of tar sands to obtain a single barrel of oil, as Shell, Exxon-Mobil and that paragon of environmental responsibility, BP, are all in on the action, but also underpins the hunt for oil in deep-water deposits off-shore and in the new oil frontier of the Arctic as well as shale gas extraction from hydrofracking.

Furthermore, it brings sharply into focus the reality that under capitalism, particularly its unregulated neoliberal variant, massive transnational oil companies will not hesitate to bolster their bottom lines and appease their shareholders before any concern about the stability of the biosphere filters through into corporate head offices.

One tar sands mine in Alberta has excavated more rock and soil than was required to build the Great Pyramid at Cheops, the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal and the world’s 10 largest dams combined.  Mining and processing is enough to heat three million homes and such is the electricity demand, it’s helping to fuel the requirement to build another environmental and health menace: more nuclear power stations.   Water use is 349 million cubic meters annually; water that becomes so heavily contaminated that it can’t be put back in the rivers it’s bleeding dry.  It must be kept sequestered in vast lakes of highly toxic effluent that already cover 50 square kilometers and are large enough to be seen from space.  The negative impacts on indigenous land and culture, wildlife, forests, water, air and downstream pollution run on and on.

Considering some of the facts of tar sands mining, and the appalling environmental damage it will cause, this is surely an area where one would expect democratically-elected governments to step in and say: we must find an alternative.  Yet, it seems almost certain that President Obama, who has the authority to stop the pipeline without recourse to Congress, will give the green light to further expansion as Canada seeks an export market to justify further production expansion.  The Keystone XL project, a 1,700 mile pipeline that will be able to carry 700,000 barrels a day from Canada all the way down to the refineries in Texas, cutting through multiple states and risking the contamination of such essential fresh water sources as the Ogallala aquifer is essential to Canadian plans for tar sands development.

Yet we know from Wikileaks that the State Department has been in collusion with TransCanada, the pipeline company, to ensure favorable press and hired a state dept official formerly with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign team to guarantee that her new department won’t look too closely at the negative environmental implications.   A company who count TransCanada as one of their major clients, Cardno Entrix, was hired by the State Department to carry out the environmental assessment.

Desperate to retain their members’ dues base and taking a nationalist and short-term position with regard to “American jobs”, the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters union, rather than actively campaigning for jobs with a real future such as those in an expanded renewable energy sector, energy conservation and infrastructure development are backing the pipeline.

Yes, we certainly need jobs, but why do we only ever get offered jobs when it’s in the interests of the fossil fuel corporations or the banks and we have to trade them off for environmental stability?  Or when the government wants young American’s to go and fight and kill other young people in far off lands?  What about the millions of jobs that could be created by manufacturing a clean energy economy, with a new energy grid, retrofitting buildings across the country for energy conservation and in building an updated and efficient sanitation system?  Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of teachers we’d need to educate such a workforce.  The bankers foreclosed on our homes and the capitalists and politicians that serve them seem intent on foreclosing on the planet.

Organized by Bill McKibben of 350.org, over 1,000 people were arrested outside the Whitehouse this summer to pressure Obama into refusing to sign off on the pipeline project.  While this was a highly commendable and impressive action, it was also rather confusing as McKibben urged activists not to give up on Obama.  Despite more than two years of unremitting disappointment on environmental questions (and much else) activists were encouraged to wear their 2008 Obama campaign buttons at the protests and on their way to jail.  It was confusing because you can’t protest someone you simultaneously support and hope to build a robust and uncompromising movement for change in the teeth of corporate malfeasance and lobbying power.  Either you protest and create a large enough oppositional movement that forces a rethink of government policy, as has happened in Germany with the German government’s u-turn on nuclear power, or you weaken the movement and bamboozle your supporters with misplaced calls for loyal protest actions to get our supposed friend in the Whitehouse on the right track.

McKibben has called Obama’s upcoming decision a “watershed moment” for his presidency and environmentalists who previously enthusiastically campaigned for him have vowed to sit out his 2012 re-election campaign if he doesn’t follow through and refuse to authorize the project.  I hope they do.

In a statement that underscores the cynicism with which the Democratic Party take their most enthusiastic supporters, the New York Times quoted democratic pollster Mark Mellman: “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of–they’re going to hate these Republican candidates…So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.”  In other words, the Democrats will simply run a negative campaign that only promises to be not quite as bad as the Republicans.  Meanwhile, not quite as bad as the Republicans will fry the planet just as surely as if the Republicans had been in charge of the furnaces.

So this is a watershed moment not just for Obama, but also for McKibben and the mainstream environmental movement.  Only a complete and irrevocable break with the Democratic Party will get us anywhere.  In several articles written over the lifetime of the Obama presidency, including when he had super-majorities in both houses of Congress and could have acted with purpose on environmental questions, I have argued that, despite the rhetoric, Obama’s default position would always be to side with the corporations against a rational and forward-thinking environmental program.  One that would protect health, create jobs and give us a chance of avoiding global climate meltdown.  Obama has yet to provide any evidence that my analysis is incorrect.

In a coffin that should really have received its last nail some time ago, it is highly likely that he will further confirm my analysis with his commitment to the pipeline project.  The question then will be, will the mainstream environmental organizations such as 350.org follow through, ditch the Democratic Party, make good on their promise not to campaign for an Obama second term, and help build the only thing that will save us: the construction of a broad-based but completely independent movement for real social and ecological change.

Paradoxically, the only force that might prevent President Obama from burning all his bridges to the environmental movement is Occupy Wall Street, which has already sharply moved the political narrative to the left in the United States precisely because it is independent of the two-party corporate duopoly that masquerades as democratic political choice.  Yet, if OWS continues to grow and the Democratic Party are forced to respond by tacking to the left on environmental and social issues so as not to lose every last shred of liberal credibility, it further serves to underline my argument that we will only win real change when we categorically refuse to get taken for a ride by the Democratic chariot that is hitched so firmly to the corporate horse.

Chris Williams is a professor in the Dept of Chemistry & Physical Science, Pace University and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010)

Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch

One of the Greatest Descriptions of Farm Work Ever Written— Don’t miss Frank Bardacke’s marvelous account from the California fields. ALSO Linn Washington Jr. on the “Black Backlash Against Obama.”

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