Bill McKibben and the Largest Act of Civil Disobedience in American History

ExclusiveAn interview with Bill McKibben on the eve of an environmental protest.

Led by venerated climate change activist, author and founder of, Bill McKibben, citizens from all over the country will converge on the White House on Saturday, August 20th, 2011 at 11 o’clock Eastern Standard Time to protest a proposed tar sand oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. Their goal? Pressure President Barack Obama to stop a project called Keystone XL, a pipeline running through America’s heartland. Indications are that Obama is likely to sign off on the project (the chief lobbyist for the project is Hillary Clinton’s deputy campaign manager). As McKibben tells EcoSalon, “This is the singular test of Obama’s environmental administration. It’s clean cut; congress isn’t in the middle, it’s Obama’s call.” McKibben plans to be arrested in the first wave of protesters Saturday morning and plans to be wearing his Obama ’08 t-shirt and button in the support of the “Obama we worked to get elected.”

(Image above: An aerial view of toxic sludge left in the wake of Tar Sand mining in Alberta, Canada. Photograph: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace.)

Tar Sands: A Modern Eco-Disaster

Regardless if it’s crude or tar as sand sludge being transported, the fact is, pipelines rupture. Last year, 819,000 gallons spewed into the Kalamazoo River and 21,000 gallons leaked in Romeville, Illinois. In July of this year, between 23,000 and 31,000 gallons of crude spilled into the Yellowstone River. As sweet crude sources become scarcer and scarcer, the process of extracting oil stratified in sand, water and clay is becoming more cost-effective. The problem is that the process is incredibly destructive environmentally and extremely energy-intensive. Tar sand refinement takes 40% more greenhouse gas emissions to develop into usable crude, and the “mining” of it leaves unprecedented environmental destruction in its wake.

As NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansen, says about Keystone XL pipeline if approved: “It’s essentially a game-over for the climate.” The United States is the largest importer of tar sand oil in the world, sourcing it from Canada. The massive pipeline would most likely double the extraction from Alberta’s boreal forest, an area already decimated by extraction activities.

McKibben tells us, “You have three scenarios here. One: the toxic sauce spills into some of America’s most important farmlands and wilderness areas. Two: it spills into the Ogallala aquafier (the world’s largest, located in the midwestern United States), and three, if it makes it all the way to Texas, it’s guaranteed to spill into the atmosphere during refinement.”

Tar sands projects are the fastest-growing cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and it’s estimated that by 2015, tar sands will account for more emissions than the entire country of Denmark. Extraction requires a tremendous amount of water (2-4.5 barrels per barrel of oil produced), which winds up in toxic tailing lagoons that have never been successfully reclaimed. An analysis using industry data shows that the lagoons leak over a billion gallons of polluted water into the environment each year. And because refining what’s called bitumen (a mixture of sand, water, oil and clay) into usable crude takes at least 40% more energy than regular crude refinement, the amount refined will skyrocket and so will the emissions.

Anatomy of a Protest

Protest organizers confirm that 2,100 people from all over the country are coming to Washington D.C. to be arrested over the next two weeks.  The protestors will receive a training before converging on the White House, where morning and afternoon, for the next two weeks, waves of mass arrests will take place. Reports from protest headquarters state that citizens are busing in, and as many as 1,000 so far have stated exactly when they’ll be arriving for their arrest. According to McKibben, “This will be the single largest act of civil disobedience in American history.”

Sources and further reading:

Tar Sands Action

The Guardian

Oil Sands Fact Sheet

On Earth: NRDC Says Wild Lands Under Attack

Kalamazoo Oil Spill Highlights Pipeline Risks