NASA Scientist, Religious Leaders Arrested in Tar Sands Protest

WASHINGTON, DC, August 29, 2011 (ENS) – NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen was arrested today in front of the White House where he was demonstrating in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would bring thick crude oil from Alberta to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. Dr. Hansen heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and is a climate research scientist at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

Arrests are continuing at the White House, where about 140 people gathered on the sidewalk as part of a two-week long sit-in to protest TransCanada’s proposed 1,700 mile pipeline.

Dr. James Hansen is arrested protesting the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House, August 29, 2011 (Photo by Ben Powless)

The protest has led to the arrest of 521 people since August 20, when protestors began the Tar Sands Action sit-in at the White House. The protest will continue until September 3.

Because the proposed pipeline would cross the United States-Canada border, a Presidential Permit issued by the U.S. State Department is required for the project to proceed. The protestors are demanding that President Barack Obama decline to issue a permit for the pipeline because of the environmental damage it would cause.

“If the pipeline is to be built, you as president have to declare that it is ‘in the national interest,” wrote Dr. Hansen in an August 3 letter to President Obama along with 19 other scientists. “As scientists, speaking for ourselves and not for any of our institutions, we can say categorically that it’s not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.”

Today, 60 religious leaders of many faiths were among the crowd, which also included CREDO Mobile president Michael Kieschnick, Greenpeace Director Phil Radford and 350.org Executive Director May Boeve.

“Climate change hurts the poor first,” said Rose Berger, a Roman Catholic and lead Sojourners organizer for Tar Sands Action. “The tar sands development and the permitting the Keystone XL pipeline will worsen climate change and should be stopped.”

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation said, “We must turn up the heat in a sustained effort against the scourge of climate change, which harms not just our land and water but people here and now, our human future and all earthly Creation.”

Religious leaders protest the pipeline as U.S. Park Police arrest United Church of Christ minister Rev. Mari Castellanos, August 29, 2011. (Photo by Justice and Witness Ministries)

“The stand against tar sand oil is basically about protecting God’s creation and God’s people,” said United Church of Christ minister Rev. Mari Castellanos. “The process of extraction destroys the boreal forest and wetlands, leaves behind enormous lakes of toxic waste and causes high levels of greenhouse gas pollution. To engage in peaceful protest against it is sacramental.”

In addition, the No Tar Sands Caravan arrived in Washington, DC today after seven days and over 3,300 miles traveled on the journey from California to Washington, DC to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline, endorsing the pipeline as the “agency-preferred alternative.”

The State Department considered three major alternative scenarios – a no action alternative; the use of other pipeline systems or methods of providing Canadian crude oil to the Gulf Coast market; and other potential pipeline routes for transporting heavy crude oil from the U.S./Canada border to the Gulf Coast market.

“There is an existing market demand for heavy crude oil in the Gulf Coast area,” the FEIS states. “The demand for crude oil in the Gulf Coast area is projected to increase and refinery runs are projected to grow over the next 10 years, even under a low demand outlook.”

“Whether or not the proposed Project is implemented, Canadian producers would seek alternative transportation systems to move oil to markets other than the U.S. Several projects have been proposed to transport crude oil out of the oil sands area of Alberta using pipelines to Canadian ports,” the State Department concludes.

The FEIS recognizes the public’s concern for how a pipeline spill might affect the Northern High Plains Aquifer System, which includes the Ogallala aquifer formation and the Sand Hills aquifer unit.

Pipe sections near Pilsen, Kansas staged for the TransCanada Keystone pipeline, June 17, 2010. (Photo by David Penner)

“The Northern High Plains Aquifer system supplies 78 percent of the public water supply and 83 percent of irrigation water in Nebraska and approximately 30 percent of water used in the U.S. for irrigation and agriculture,” the FEIS states. “Of particular concern is the part of the aquifer which lies below the Sand Hills region. In that region, the aquifer is at or near the surface.”

After its analysis, the State Department concludes that spill impacts “are typically limited to several hundred feet or less from a spill site.” The FEIS states, “In no spill incident scenario would the entire Northern High Plains Aquifer system be adversely affected.”

“This is not a decision document,” said Assistant Secretary of State Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. “The FEIS is not a decision regarding the permit. The FEIS is one piece of the information that will be considered. Much information will be needed to inform the decision regarding this required permit.”

“This is not the rubberstamp for this project,” said Dr. Jones. “The permit that is required for this process has not been approved or rejected at all.”

Tar sands pipeline protestors were not deterred by Hurricane Irene, which lashed Washington, DC on Saturday, August 27, 2011. (Photo by Rose Berger)

“This is a document that presents the analytical and the data information that we have regarding the environmental impacts,” said Jones. “The process that was used to produce this impact statement looked to technical expertise across the U.S. Government and to engineering and technical experts outside of the U.S. Government, as well as extensive public feedback.”

Environmental author Bill McKibben, who is organizing the protests at the White House, said that the release of the State Department FEIS would not dampen the spirits of the 2,000 Americans who have signed up to participate in the Tar Sands Action.

“We knew from past experience that State might do something like this, which is why we’ve always said it’s going to be Obama’s call,” said McKibben. “They can’t get the climate science right, but maybe they can get the politics right.”

A State Department spokesperson said the agency is on track to make a determination about the pipeline by the end of this year.

Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones (Photo courtesy U.S. State Dept.)

Before a decision is final, the State Department is soliciting additional public input. The next step of the process, the national interest determination, is a 90-day period when State officials will consult with other federal government agencies to define the national interest regarding this project.

“We have also decided that during the first few days of this 90-day period, we will have sessions for more additional public comments,” said Jones. “These are not required, but we feel that because this is such an important project, we need to have more interaction with the public and we want to get as much feedback as possible and have this be as transparent as possible.”

The pipeline is supported by the National Association of Manufacturers, the largest manufacturing association in the United States, representing manufacturers in every industrial sector and in all 50 states.

NAM Vice President for Energy and Resources Policy Chip Yost said Friday, “Manufacturers are pleased the State Department has issued the final Environmental Impact Study. The country is now one step closer to construction of the pipeline, which will create thousands of jobs, generate economic growth and establish energy stability.”

“This project is estimated to create 20,000 high-paying manufacturing and construction jobs and will provide access to affordable sources of energy,” said Yost. “Manufacturers use nearly one third of our nation’s energy supply, so reliable, affordable energy is critical to global competitiveness.”

Suncor’s tar sands processing facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta (Photo by Jiri Rezac / Tarnished Earth / Greenpeace UK)

“We encourage action by the State Department and President Obama to avoid further delay or additional red tape. Our nation’s economy is stalled and Americans need jobs. We hope the administration will act quickly and move this project forward.”

The opinion of the environmental community is clear. On Thursday, leaders of some of the nation’s largest environmental groups signed a letter urging the President to view this as a “watershed moment.”

“Dear President Obama,” they wrote, “Many of the organizations we head do not engage in civil disobedience; some do. Regardless, speaking as individuals, we want to let you know that there is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone Pipeline and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House.”

“This is a terrible project – many of the country’s leading climate scientists have explained why in their letter last month to you. It risks many of our national treasures to leaks and spills. And it reduces incentives to make the transition to job – creating clean fuels,” the letter states.

“You have a clear shot to deny the permit, without any interference from Congress. It’s perhaps the biggest climate test you face between now and the election,” they wrote. “If you block it, you will trigger a surge of enthusiasm from the green base that supported you so strongly in the last election. We expect nothing less.”

Greenpeace activists protest Suncor operations in the tar sands north of Fort McMurray by deploying a floating banner on the Athabasca River, September 30, 2009. (Photo by Jeremy Williams courtesy Greenpeace Denmark )

Signers were Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund; Michael Brune, Sierra Club; Frances Beinecke, Natural Resources Defense Council; Phil Radford, Greenpeace; Larry Schweiger, National Wildlife Federation; Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth; Rebecca Tarbotton, Rainforest Action Network; May Boeve, 350.org, who was arrested at the White House today; Gene Karpinski, League of Conservation Voters; Margie Alt, Environment America; and Kieran Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity.

In Canada, too, there is opposition to the pipeline. On Saturday, a rally in Burnaby, British Columbia near the site of a 2007 oil spill was held to support the protesters in Washington, DC.

Protesters there said the Alberta tar sands are one the largest sources of climate-changing pollution left on Earth.

Greenpeace has been protesting the tar sands development for years. Greenpeace is calling on oil companies and the Canadian government to stop the tar sands and end the industrialization of a vast area of Indigenous territories, forests and wetlands in northern Alberta.

“The tar sands are huge deposits of bitumen, a tar-like substance that is turned into oil through complex and energy-intensive processes that cause widespread environmental damage – polluting the Athabasca River, lacing the air with toxins and turning farmland into wasteland,” Greenpeace says. “Large areas of the boreal forest are being clearcut to make way for development in the tar sands, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.”

Greenpeace is also concerned with the social and health costs of tar sands development. First Nations communities in the tar sands report unusually high levels of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases, and their traditional way of life has been threatened.

On September 26 in Ottawa, the largest act of civil disobedience on the climate issue that Canada has ever seen will be staged by the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace Canada and the Indigenous Environmental Network. People will risk arrest in an action endorsed by McKibben and Hansen among hundreds of others.

Click here to read the August 22, 2011 ENS article on the Tar Sands White House action.

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