Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Keystone XL Pipeline: Thoughts from the 'NO KXL' Vigil, Union Square, NYC

A month ago, on a cold Monday night, February 3, 2014, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in Union Square to participate in a candlelight vigil and to urge President Obama to reject the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL).

Similar #NOKXL vigils took place in 283 venues across the country and in forty-nine of our states.  These gatherings were organized in a mere seventy-two hours through the efforts of several activist organizations: Public Citizen,  CREDO,  Rainforest Action Network,  Sierra Club,  Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline,,  Center for Biological Diversity,  Oil Change International,  Energy Action Coalition,  National Resources Defense Council,  Environmental Action,  Bold Nebraska,  League of Conservation Voters,  Friends of the Earth, Waterkeeper Alliance,  The Hip Hop Caucus,  The Other 98%,  Overpass Light Brigade,  Forest Ethics,  Forecast the Facts,  and some others.

Connie from Brooklyn, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

When I arrived, the Vigil had already begun and speakers were addressing the circled crowd. Among the speakers was Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of, and Clayton Thomas-Muller, member of the Cree Nation and of the indigenous movement, Idle No More. Unfortunately, I found myself six-to-eight bodies back and too far away to hear very well (especially given my old, challenged ears), so I briefly turned my attention to Connie, also on the periphery.

Her sign, even with its small lettering, gently and poetically encapsulates the problem of KXL--an ecological disaster for our country, and maybe even our earth.  On it, Connie has penned the words from the first stanza of Pete Seeger's, My Rainbow Race (listen here):

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore 

One earth so green and round, who could ask for more? 

And because I love you I'll give it one more try 

To show my rainbow race, it's too soon to die......

The second stanza begins: Some folks want to be like an ostrich, 
Bury their heads in the sand... This is precisely what the proponents of KXL are doing: burying their heads in the sand, pretending things are all right....but things are not all right, and I would hope that all of us would agree, it's too soon to die.

Crowd, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

View to Speakers, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

Crowd, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

These three photographs capture the extent of the crowd which braved freezing temperatures to stand against the folly of KXL. 

Fittingly, the photo immediately above shows George Washington on horseback overlooking the protesters. This equestrian statue, modeled by the American artist Henry Kirke Brown and dedicated in 1865, presides over the gathering and, with raised right hand, seems to gesture approvingly. And why not?

After all, our first president had shown an early interest in husbandry and in agricultural improvement and reform, and so would have been most sympathetic to the farmers of Nebraska and several other states, whose livelihood is being threatened by the pipeline coming down from Alberta, Canada on its way to Texas.

Crowd, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

But even before the Keystone pipeline crosses the border into Nebraska and the United States, it has already shown its untrustworthiness in Alberta. Of the existing pipelines in Canada, some are dedicated to carrying crude oil, while others, called multi-phase, carry a combination of crude oil and gas. Between 2006-1010, Alberta experienced 109 crude oil pipeline failures and 1, 538 multi-phase failures.  This amounted to what York University Professor Sean Kheraj termed a "staggering" volume of 174,213 barrels of oil, and he further states the fact that "a spill-free system is an impossible goal." 

Alberta, Canada, Red Deer River Pipeline Blowout, 2012

To put the spills just in Alberta in a different light, the total failures, simply for the year 2010, came out to a failure every 1.4 days. It would seem to me that the oil industry can't even discuss a "spill-free system." What they have is a spill system, built on a 150-year old technology for transporting oil, the main changes to which are merely larger diameter pipes and more efficient pumping stations.

Candle Cups, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

We know how destructive to our environment and our economy crude oil spills can be. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound (1989) and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010) are events etched in our memories. However the KXL will be carrying a product much more corrosive and destructive than crude (or refined) oil. That product is dilbit, or diluted bitumen.

Dilbit is not a liquid that gushes from underground, as we have come to expect from images depicting oil exploration. It is a dilution of bitumen with benzene, naphtha, hydrogen sulfide, and other (proprietary) ingredients. The bitumen is strip mined, as coal might be, and for over a century it was considered a worthless, junky, oily rock-like substance. Its main use in the 19th-20th centuries was as asphalt for road building or roof waterproofing.

The diluting ingredients--dilutent--that enable bitumen to flow in pipes (at higher temperatures, by the way) are volatile, toxic and carcinogenic. Benzene is a notorious cause of bone marrow failure, as well as anemia and leukemia. In fact, in 1948, the American Petroleum Institute (API) stated that "it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero." Clearly, the API is now disregarding its own, earlier findings.

Naphtha is a colorless and volatile liquid similar to gasoline. In some forms it is carcinogenic, and acute exposure causes dizziness, narcosis and loss of consciousness. Exposure to naphtha also causes global brain disorder (encepalopathy).  

Hydrogen Sulfide, the third known, common diluent, is flammable, highly toxic and, being heavier than air, it sinks. It is a broad-spectrum poison that also can affect the brain, causing the death of cells in the cerebral cortex, cerebral edema, and is known to affect the nervous system and cellular respiration.

Bitumen and its diluent are the reasons that concerned and informed citizens are braving the cold, here in New York City and across our country. The effects of KXL will be global--even with no spills, which we know is an impossibility. KXL is not a matter of environmental effect localized to a part of Alaska (Exxon Valdez) or to four Gulf States (Deepwater Horizon). Its effects will be global. Stopping Keystone should, and must, be a matter of national priority. 

KXL = Climate Change, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

This sign, equating KXL with climate change, reveals the core of the problem. The pipeline, if completed and put into operation, will give TransCanada Corporation its only, truly affordable way to transport the dilbit to a refinery (in this case, in Texas) capable of processing it for export (mainly to China). This will mean that Canada gets a green light to continue to exploit its tar sands to the fullest.

If we are to have any chance to fight global warming, 80% of those tar sand reserves must stay in the ground, and if they stay in the ground (which they must) then there is no need for KXL, as Andy Rowell argues in an article from last December. The case for leaving the tar sands and their bitumen in the ground is made most powerfully by NASA climate scientist, James Hansen. As he wrote in the New York Times in May of 2012, "if Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate." 

One Day, Son, This Will All Be Yours..., my apologies to the artist, whose signature I was unable to read (and I tried)

Hansen goes on to explain his dire prediction as follows.  Canada's tar sands "contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history." If we exploit this new source, rather than find ways to reduce emissions, the "concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is temperatures would become intolerable [and] twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction."

Matt Wuerker, How To Build A Pipeline,

Are we really going to disregard the warnings of a scientist who has spent decades studying the causes and issues of global warming? As Hansen concludes, "the science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow." Unfortunately, many of our politicians have allowed themselves to be swayed by the assurances and pressure of the oil interests--they who have almost never told the truth about anything.

President Obama, In support of the southern half of KXL, Ripley, Oklahoma, March, 2012 

But the final decision has come down to President Obama. Some of us may recall his 2008 Inauguration speech, in which he made this promise: "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." 

Then, on June 25, 2013, he gave a talk about America's energy future at Georgetown University. In it, the President painted in great detail a rosy picture of how America was embracing clean energy and leading the world in that direction. When he came to KXL, this is what he said: "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

Near the end of his speech, Obama enlisted the help of his audience and its generational cohorts with these words: "Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I'm going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends....Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution."

This past Sunday, college students from all over the country took Obama's words to heart. Over a thousand students from at least fifty colleges gathered at Georgetown University and marched to the White House to take part in what they called XL Dissent. They participated in non-violent civil disobedience, and 398 were arrested. Among the many signs they carried, possibly the most poignant one read, "There Is No Planet B."

These students understand that President Obama will need help if he is to keep his word and be a proper custodian of our planet. Because a faulty study concluded that KXL poses no environmental risks, Obama has an "out" that might possibly allow him to approve the pipeline. Doing so, however,  would fly in the face of the science of environmental policy, while once again succumbing to the vested interests of corporations and their lobbyists.  As Representative Raúl Grijalva (D, AZ) wrote in a recent New York Times article entitled "Obama's Pipeline," "Keystone is about more than one pipeline. It is about establishing once and for all whether we have moved on from the disastrous Bush-Cheney view of environmental policy."

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, provided the perfect metaphor to characterize President Obama's upcoming decision on KXL: If Mr. Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, Mr. Brune said, it will be “the Vietnam of his presidency.”

If you would like to add your name to those who would like to stop the building of KXL, look up any of the groups that I list in my second paragraph (above) or open this link from CREDO Mobilize.

Here, also, is a very good video featuring Van Jones that deals with Obama's dilemma in regard to KXL.

And here are two of many fairly thorough articles that will offer more explanation of KXL:  "Why Oppose KXL?" and "Why It's Worth Going to Jail to Stop Keystone XL."

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