Interfaith group joins protest against proposed 'tar sand' oil pipeline from Canada

August 22, 2011

A proposed pipeline to convey oil derived from "tar sand" in Canada across the American heartland is facing strong opposition from environmentalists – including faith-based groups – staging nonviolent sit-in protests this week in front of the White House in Washington D.C.

Since the protests began Aug. 20, some 150 activists have been arrested, according to, one of the organizations involved in the demonstrations, which are planned to continue for two weeks.

The protesters hope to persuade President Barack Obama to deny a permit to TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P., the Canadian company that plans to build the pipeline. The protest effort is being coordinated by Tar Sand Action and involves many environmental groups, in addition to landowners and farmers who live along the proposed pipeline route, Native American leaders, organizations dedicated to preservation of forests, water resources and wildlife, and faith-based groups who see conservation as a religious imperative.

"Fighting to stop climate change and working to protect life on the planet as we know it is one of the best ways I know of to witness to the risen Christ," the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Episcopal priest and a co-chair of Religious Witness for the Earth, an interfaith coalition advocating conservationist causes, told ENS in an Aug. 22 telephone interview.

Bullitt-Jonas, associate priest at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, was one of a group of Massachusetts RWE leaders who on Aug. 19 met with Consul Aaron Annable, head of political, economic relations and public affairs at the Canadian consulate in New England, to advocate against the pipeline project and support the protesters.

Environmental organizations from across the nation have raised a variety of objections to the pipeline project, citing immediate concerns about damage to animal habitats, potential spills from the pipes and contamination of water and soil along the route, as well as wider concerns about the economic effect of spending millions of dollars to increase the supply of oil instead of developing cleaner sources of energy.

The protesters also assert that extraction of oil from tar sand takes a great deal of energy – enough natural gas to heat three million homes – and uses the equivalent of three million barrels of drinking water per day, according to ForestEthics, a woodland preservation group involved in the protest.

Stopping the pipeline and the excavation of oil from tar sands, protest organizers say, is essential to stopping climate change.

"An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts," climate scientist James Hansen wrote in "Silence is Deadly," an essay published in June on his website.

"Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm [parts per million]," wrote Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and is adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Climate scientists say that 350 ppm is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize climate," Hansen continues.

"Phase-out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over" for counteracting climate change, Hansen wrote.

According to National Geographic, Canada's tar sands – also called "oil sands" – are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen, or natural asphalt, mixed with sand, clay, and water, some of which lie beneath as much as 100 feet of soil. The area is covered with forest and fens that are nesting habitats for birds such as the whooping crane and sand crane.

"The exploitation of the tar sands and building of related pipelines have been presented as being in the economic best interest of the U.S. and Canada," said the RWE release. "Religious Witness for the Earth, in solidarity with the activists and climate scientists around the world, call on our leaders to recognize that the Keystone XL Pipeline is not in the environmental or social best interest – nor long-term economic best interest – of anyone on Planet Earth."

Refining oil from tar sand is "a carbon-intensive form of developing more carbon pollution," Bullitt-Jonas told ENS.

"We believe it does exactly the opposite of mending, repairing, and healing the world," the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, United Church of Christ minister and an RWE co-chair, said in the release.

According to the U.S. Department of State, a presidential permit is required for the pipeline project because the proposed route crosses the Canada-U.S. border. The pipeline "initially would have a nominal transport capacity of 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil," the State Department website says.

The proposed pipeline would begin near Hardisty in Alberta, Canada, cross the international border at Saskatchewan, and carry crude oil through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, joining an existing pipeline in Kansas and continuing to delivering points in Houston and Point Arthur, Texas – about 327 miles of pipeline in Canada and approximately 1,384 miles in the United States, according to the State Department.

Although TransCanada Keystone asserts on its website that the pipeline is safe and economically sound, and that the company is prepared to deal quickly with any problems, environmentalists cite a July 1 oil pipeline rupture in Yellowstone National Park, Montana, and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf Coast in April 2010, both of which spewed oil into environmentally sensitive areas, as examples of continued degradation of the earth stemming from continued oil exploration, extraction and transport.

To counter arguments that the pipeline and additional sources of fossil fuels are necessary to help the U.S. recover from the current recession, RWE representatives evoked moments in history when social change or a common purpose forced massive changes in economic systems.

"Like fossil fuels today, slavery in the 19th century permeated the United States economy, both north and south," the Rev. Fred Small, a Unitarian Universalist minister and RWE founder and co-chair, told the Canadian consulate staff, according to the release. "Abolition was viewed as an economic impossibility. The arguments we hear today in defense of oil and coal are chillingly similar."

"Look at how quickly the U.S. economy turned around for World War II – in a matter of just a couple of years things really changed," Bullitt-Jonas told ENS. "If we could get the same kind of clarity I think we'd find the energy and the will to make the changes we need to make" in order to shift to clean energy.

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