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The Devil in the Tar Sands

CAPE TOWN – On Sunday, November 6, thousands of people encircled the White House as part of the ongoing effort to press US President Barack Obama to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. If the nearly 1,700-mile pipeline were to be built, it would run from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, through the heartland of the US, all the way to the Texas coast on the Gulf of Mexico. Should the project go ahead, Obama will have made one of the single most disastrous decisions of his presidency concerning climate change and the very future of our planet.

In August, some 1,250 people were arrested in front of the White House while protesting against Keystone. One of them was James Hanson, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been studying for decades the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. Hanson argues that the pipeline would sound the death knell for the world’s climate. Oil from the tar sands of Alberta is the dirtiest in the world, and its extraction is already causing problems. If Keystone is built, there will be increased efforts to expand oil production there, making a bad situation much worse.

Opposition to the pipeline throughout the US is growing in intensity – from the activists arrested in Washington, DC, to the governor of Nebraska, who is seeking state legislation to stop the pipeline from running through America’s biggest aquifer, to members of the US Congress, who have petitioned Obama about the project. The outpouring of opposition surprised the oil industry, its highly paid lobbyists, and especially TransCanada Corporation, which would build the pipeline. So, like many huge corporations facing public criticism, they and their allies are responding with a dubious new marketing effort.

The pipeline’s defenders proclaim that Canadian oil is “ethical,” whereas oil from suspect countries is “unethical.” US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, has picked up on the theme. “We have a supply [of oil] to our north that, to me, is just like finding it in America,” he said. “Dirty oil is buying oil from someone who takes the money and sponsors terrorism and tries to make the world a dark and sinister place to live.”