Sam Avery, a long-time American social activist, claims Canada’s oil-sands extraction will double atmospheric carbon dioxide, setting the planet on a dangerous climate course. His new book, The Pipeline and the Paradigm: Keystone XL, Tar Sands, and the Battle to Defuse the Carbon Bomb, frames opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Port Harding, Texas, as the most critical environmental cause of our time.
Allowing the project to continue could spell irreversible climate change, he writes, while blocking it would signal a global paradigm shift: Finally, the planet’s well-being would be put ahead of profit. The U.S. State Department recently moved the Keystone XL pipeline project one step closer to final approval. However, last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested more study, a move that could further delay the long-stalled project.
Q: You followed the pipeline route from northern Alberta, through the southern U.S., talking to landowners who were going to have the pipeline run through their property—some, whether they liked it or not, thanks to Trans-Canada’s claims of eminent domain.
A: I spoke to landowners who were worried about the tar sands themselves and spillage. They’re told that this is the safest pipeline in the world, which it may be; but we know that pipelines break, and that tar sands are not the same thing as crude oil. The tar sands themselves are highly toxic and chemicals are added to them, like benzene and naphthalene, which encourage them to flow. It’s solid at room temperature, it’s sticky, black, and you can’t get it to move in a pipeline unless you add chemicals to make it more fluid. The chemical additives are not listed publicly—it’s claimed they’re proprietary knowledge. I met some first responders who said they wouldn’t know what to do—whether to suit up, or how to respond in the case of a spillage.
Q: You say we’re “staring into the abyss of runaway climate disaster” and that the Keystone XL pipeline will “diminish human habitation of the Earth.” But oil-sands emissions represent, for example, one-thirtieth of emissions from coal-fired plants in Missouri alone. Isn’t it an exaggerated claim to say the construction of Keystone XL will mean game over for the planet?
A: I don’t think that’s exaggerated. The problem with climate science is there’s a lot of ifs, ands or buts. There is enough carbon in the tar sands of Canada to bring us up over the two-degree limit change in Earth’s average temperature. That means we have a 20 per cent chance of entering into what’s called a feedback loop, which could lead to a runaway climate—melting ice and thawing permafrost that will release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and make the climate worse and worse. If you’re not very concerned about this situation you could say, “Well, we still have an 80 per cent chance of nothing happening.” But you can turn that around and say: “If you knew an airplane had a 20 per cent chance of landing safely, would you put your grandchildren on that plane?” I’m an alarmist; I’m saying: “Let’s wake up, let’s do something about this before it becomes something we can no longer control.”
Q: Renowned American climate scientist James Hanson says he believes the Canadian government is in the back pocket of the oil industry. Have you been disappointed by Canada’s approach to climate science?
A: I think Canada has a huge problem because of the enormous size of this deposit, and the enormous potential economic benefit from it. We’re talking trillions, not billions of dollars. Canada could be the new Saudi Arabia—it’s that huge. That’s a huge amount of pressure—on government, on industry. But what I’m saying is that life on Earth is more important. As a citizen of the planet, I say to Canada: “We understand the pressure you’re under, but you may not have our water, you may not have our forest, you may not have our climate to develop your product.”
Q: There seems to be a significant problem with the focus of the U.S. environmental movement on the Keystone XL pipeline. That is, a sense that if the pipeline is refused, the job will be done. I guess it’s easier to block a pipeline than it is to stir a conversation about demand-side measures in the U.S.?
A: Well, I hope that we do have that debate. Ultimately, consumers are king; it boils down to consumers consciously taking the decision to find other ways of getting where they need to go, other ways of heating their homes. I’m a certified solar installer—there are other ways of making electricity.
Q: The book opens with a picture of you in handcuffs in D.C., being arrested while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. You believe that this is a “war.” Parts of the book read like a training manual for non-violent civil disobedience. Was that your intent?
A: In a way, yes. It’s less a handbook than an attempt to put the civil back in civil disobedience, in that it’s not about just causing a big ruckus and getting arrested, that’s not the purpose—though you do have to risk that in certain circumstances.
Q: Another flaw in the strategy surrounding Keystone is that this oil will be developed, whether it’s in Texas or Tianjin. Alberta oil could be shipped by rail. And there’s talk of piping the oil north, out of Tuktoyaktuk, near the Beaufort Sea, a project that has the support of the premier of the Northwest Territories.
A: Yes. That’s why we want to prevent Keystone XL. We want to keep it from getting to a deep-water port, where everybody in the world will have access to it.
Q: Still, you must worry that in a global market, the oil will get to markets where it will be refined where there isn’t the rigour we have in North America; and that it will be burned in cars that don’t have anything close to North American fuel-efficiency standards.
A: Yes, that is possible. But there’s a logical sleight of hand there, in that it assumes this tar sand is going to be extracted and piped anywhere, and we should not make that assumption. Because if it is consumed, we’re running a very strong risk of creating a situation in which plants, animals and people will no longer be able to inhabit the Earth the way we are used to now. So we should not allow ourselves to be trapped into the kind of logic which says, “If you don’t buy this stuff, China’s going to buy it,” or, “If we don’t send it through a pipeline, we’ll have to send it through rail cars, which are more expensive and environmentally dangerous.” That’s true, but what we need to do is not send it anywhere. That’s the question. Do we burn these tar sands or do we not?
Q: You write that the pipeline will “devastate the lives of indigenous people” whose land it crosses. How could an underground pipeline have that effect?
A: Many of the Cree and Dene people in Alberta I spoke to understand the Earth as a living organism, and to see this huge machinery come and rip off the surface of the earth and extract all of this tar sand just for money, and then to leave a mess—you can see it from space, it’s so huge—to them, that’s an absolute desecration. It violates their paradigm of life over money. I spoke to the Cree and Dene peoples in Alberta where the tar sands are being mined and the destruction of the forest is complete. Every tree, bug, leaf, flower, snail, insect—it’s all gone. And this is enormously destructive of the people who live in this area, not only the surface of the land, but enormous amounts of water have to be extracted from the Athabasca River every day to process the tar sands, and a lot of that ends up back in the river. The Dene are unable to hunt or fish the way they used to.
Q: Poverty and a lack of economic opportunities on reserves in Canada are also devastating the lives of Aboriginal people. Research links it to high rates of infant mortality, alcoholism, incarceration, diabetes, malnutrition and drug dependency. These are curable maladies directly linked to poverty.
A: I think a lot of these things you mentioned can also be linked to the destruction of a local culture, because a lot of these problems—whether it’s obesity or disease or alcoholism—these are social diseases that result when a local people can no longer support themselves and live out the lives that they are trained and raised to live out.
Q: But we’ve been seeing these problems for at least 60 years, and the destruction of that land that you’re talking about in the area surrounding Fort McMurray and Fort MacKay would have happened in the last 15 to 20 years.
A: Right. You can’t blame all of this on the tar sands.
Q: There are bands like Goodfish Lake, in northern Alberta, that manufacture and clean the coveralls used in the oil sands; and Aboriginal-owned road-building and pipeline-servicing firms that employ Aboriginals in and around the oil sands. Recently, an Aboriginal oil firm signed a deal for the first oil-sands project owned and run by Aboriginals. Couldn’t the pipeline be part of the solution for First Nations?
A: I think those instances are not all that prevalent, but they are stressed by the industry as a whole as a shining example. There are many people up there who were horrified by this industry, and felt it was destructive of their culture. You can find people on both sides of the question.