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Bill McKibben

Environmental Disaster in Vermont’s Pipeline

In a system permeated by the big money of the oil and coal industries,  environmentalists usually come out on the losing end of any encounter with the fossil fuel industry.

Exxon Mobil is, as Ripton’s Bill McKibben puts it, the most profitable company in the history of money. With all that money comes tremendous influence over the politics of the U.S. and many other countries.

One exception was last year’s decision by the Obama Administration to delay approval of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

It took the civil disobedience of more than 1,000 protesters in Washington, D.C. to get the administration’s attention. But eventually Obama decided to require more review of a pipeline that would vastly expand the global use of tar sands oil.

Why do pipelines matter? They are the lifeline of an energy system that will, if left unchecked, take down the planet.

If Canada’s tar sands oil is fully exploited and the present use of coal, oil and natural gas continues, says NASA’s top climate scientist James Hansen, it’s “game over for the climate.”

The climate change unleashed by burning that oil would be a kind of Environmental End Times.

“That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control,” Hansen recently wrote in the New York Times. “Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

The battle to beat back tar sands oil has played itself out far from Vermont.

Now, though, it turns out that the issue of tar sands pipelines hits much closer to home.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and many other organizations warn that Enbridge, Inc., a Canadian company, is planning to run tar sands oil through an existing pipeline that traverses Vermont’s unique Northeast Kingdom.

They say the company’s long-term plan is to use those pipelines to carry corrosive, climate-changing tar sands oil from Canada to the New England coast.

From there the oil would be shipped overseas for refining, burning, and the inevitable addition of even more heat-inducing pollution. (The plan would reverse the flow, too; instead of refined oil heading inland, unrefined tar sands oil would flow to the coast.)

Enbridge’s effort is part of a global gusher by the fossil fuel industries to sell whatever fossil fuel they can extract, and our species’ future be damned.

Hansen and other internationally recognized experts put the sustainable level of carbon in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million (hence 350.org).

We are currently at 392 ppm of carbon – and rising. A tar sands pipeline through Vermont would be another knife cut into the heart of the planet.

Enbridge wants to use existing pipelines — so what difference does it make what flows through them and in which direction?

Burning tar sands oil results in even greater carbon emissions than conventional oil. And tar sands oil is much more corrosive than the oil now running through the pipelines that traverse northern Vermont.

That means unrefined tar sand oil would be much more likely to blow the pipe and cause a major leak.

Indeed, Michigan’s Kalamazoo River was polluted two years ago by a spill of more than a million gallons of tar sands oil. That mess is still being cleaned up, at a cost of more than $275 million.

Do we want to subject our state’s beloved Northeast Kingdom to that kind of danger?

What about the other natural treasures that could be extensively damaged by an oil spill along the pipeline route – including the Connecticut, Androscoggin and St. Lawrence rivers; Lake Ontario, and Vermont’s Victory State Forest, home to many moose and boreal birds?

On July 20 and 21, a small band of hikers will walk much of the pipeline route that cuts through Vermont. The Walk for a Tar Sands Free Kingdom will begin in West Burke and, passing through Jay, Troy, Barton and other towns, end in Irasburg. (More info at www.350vt.org.)

On Sunday, July 29, pipeline opponents will also be making their presence felt through a peaceful, legal “human oil spill” demonstration in Burlington, at the conference of New England governors and premiers of eastern Canada’s provinces.

Those actions are part of an effort to take control of our energy future, out of the hands of companies whose very business endeavors could take down the ecosystem.

Understanding the consequences of burning fossil fuels was part of “Connect the Dots” day in May. Hundreds of actions around the planet were held then to connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change.

This summer’s weather makes the connections even more painfully obvious.

“More than 2 million acres have been burned in massive wildfires in much of the West, more than 110 million people were living under extreme heat advisories at the end of June, and more than two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought,” reports Time magazine.

“The 12 months ending in May were the warmest 12 continuous months on record in the U.S.” the magazine adds: “ ‘What we see now is what global warming really looks like,’ says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate expert and a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. “The heat, the fires, these kinds of environmental disasters.’ ”

How many environmental disasters – how many Irenes and Katrinas – will it take before climate change ceases to be a partisan issue, and becomes a global concern that unites us toward meaningful action?

The jury is still out on that question. But actions like those in the Northeast Kingdom and Burlington – and the fate of scores of projects such as the new tar sands pipeline – will shape the answer.

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