Crude awakening

The question is an obvious one: Why would a handful of local environmentalists and a state representative gather downtown near the spirit of Detroit statue last week to announce their opposition to a proposed oil pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas, coming nowhere near Michigan?

It's a straightforward query that gets a multifaceted response.

One reason those activists — representing Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club, the Michigan Environmental Council and the Ecology Center — showed up is that they were part of a coordinated effort taking place in at least five other cities. 

From Seattle to Boston, environmentalists were, for one thing, trying to raise public awareness about the issue of what they call "tar sands" and the industry likes to refer to as "oil sands" or "heavy crude." Whatever it is called, critics say this much is clear: The petroleum being extracted from beneath the vast boreal forests of Alberta, Canada, is both far dirtier and much more costly than oil that is obtained through conventional drilling.

"This is an issue very few people in the United States know about," says Jesse Worker, an organizer with Clean Water Action in Ann Arbor. "Focus groups show that only about 20 percent of the population are aware of what's going on."

And what's going on, according to a 2008 article in Harvard International Review, is this: 

"Because the oil in the sands is low-grade crude, extracting and refining one barrel of it requires three times as much energy as producing a barrel of conventional oil, and releases three times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At the same time, side effects of increasing oil extraction, including vast deforestation, also contribute to ever-growing emissions. The area is now the most rapidly increasing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. 

"Furthermore, washing the bitumen to separate the oil and sand wastes over 12.7 billion cubic feet of water per year. This results in both a lack of local water resources and a large amount of water pollution. Reports have also surfaced of deformed fish in the toxic lakes surrounding the extraction area."

"The Tar Pit Sands project is one giant nightmare," Brett Haverstick, of the Idaho environmental group Friends of the Clearwater, recently told the liberal online publication Truthout. "There are major social, environmental, economic, legal and political consequences. And it's just not a local issue, but global. This project affects every living being, human or non-human on the planet." 

So, in terms of global climate change, borders don't matter. If, for example, the recent soaring temperatures have you all hot and bothered, well, get used to it. 

"In the next 30 years, we could see an increase in heat waves like the one now occurring in the eastern United States or the kind that swept across Europe in 2003 that caused tens of thousands of fatalities," says Noah Diffenbaugh, a center fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment and the lead author of a climate change study released last week.

In addition to raising awareness about the issue overall, the groups that gathered in Detroit, as well as those in other cities, were trying to turn up the pressure on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration to oppose the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch nearly 2,000 miles. 

The group, an international network of citizen and indigenous groups that oppose the expansion of the Canadian tar sands, reports that the pipeline would "pump up to 900,000 barrels of toxic tar sands oil per day across the U.S., more than doubling the country's consumption of tar sands oil."

For the project to proceed, a presidential permit issued by the U.S. State Department is required. Last month, 50 members of Congress sent a letter to Clinton expressing concern about the project.

One of the reasons Detroit was on the list of cities holding a protest last week is that people here are already dealing directly with the issue of tar sands. For several years, the Marathon oil refinery in southwest Detroit has been receiving asphalt-like tar sands piped from Alberta, and extracting gasoline and diesel. It is currently undergoing a $1.8 billion expansion. 

To facilitate the expansion, in 2007, the Detroit City Council approved granting Marathon an exemption on personal property taxes that, according to published reports, totaled about $176 million over 20 years. 

At about the same time, Marathon made a $6.9 billion investment in Canadian oil sands operations. 

"Marathon's current and future oil sands developments will operate within the overarching principles of health, safety, security and environment," according to the company. "We are committed to working with key stakeholders to ensure our oil sands developments are conducted in an environmentally responsible manner that respects the well-being of the individuals and communities where we work."

The Detroit upgrade, when completed, will allow the refinery to process an additional 80,000 barrels of heavy crude per day, Marathon says. The project also includes installing 29 miles of new pipe between Monroe County and Detroit to increase the flow of oil described as having the consistency of cake batter.

Among those speaking at the Detroit event was Rhonda Anderson, environmental justice coordinator for the Sierra Club in Detroit. She pointed out that when homeowners sought a tax break to help compensate them for the negative impacts associated with living next to the refinery, the council turned them down.

It is, she says, an example of officials looking out for corporate interests but not those of their constituents. 

"This is the dirtiest type of energy you could ever think of," Anderson said.

The problem is that "communities of color" and poor people are the ones most often expected to bear the brunt of polluters — whether it is in southwest Detroit or Alberta, Canada, or Port Arthur, Texas.

As the Michigan Environmental Council's Sandra Turner-Handy pointed out, if these people could afford to move elsewhere, they would. 

Where it all ties together, said the MEC's James Clift, is the overall direction this country is taking in terms of making the shift away from fossil fuels to greener technologies that are less harmful to both people and the environment.

While the Obama administration has been heavily investing in advanced battery technology research — especially in Michigan — for it to support the Keystone XL pipeline project would be a kind of energy "schizophrenia." 

Such a pipeline, he says, only makes it more difficult for this country to reduce its dependence on oil. And by keeping gas prices low (no matter what the environmental and health costs may be), the switch to wind, solar and battery power only becomes more difficult.

For state Representative Rashida Tlaib, a southwest Detroit Democrat who also appeared at last week's press conference, the local picture is one of constituents who call her office "every single day" with questions and concerns about the pollution problems they face. 

As for the big picture?

"I hope and pray that the governments of Canada and the United States take a second look at this."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or [email protected]

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