The carbon bombs that threaten our children’s future

Bourtai Hargrove

The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air jumped dramatically in 2012, said Pieter Tans, who leads the greenhouse gas measurement team for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The increase is due to ever-rising fossil fuel burning in the developed world as well as in China. The prospects of limiting global warming to 2°C, the level scientists agree is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate chaos, are fast fading away, Tans told The Associated Press.

A new study, published in the March 2013 issue of Science, shows that the earth’s temperatures rose in just the last century to a high not seen for 4,000 years. Even if the temperature increase from human activity that is projected for later this century comes out on the low end of estimates, scientists say, the planet will be at least as warm as it was during the warmest periods of the modern geological era, known as the Holocene, and probably warmer than that. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann pointed out that the early Holocene temperature increase was almost certainly slow, giving plants and creatures time to adjust. But, he said, the modern spike is so rapid that it will probably threaten the survival of many species, in addition to putting severe stress on human civilization.

Updated studies now project a plausible scenario of a rise of 4° centigrade as soon as the 2060s. According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4° Celsius world is possible. A 4° Celsius world is likely to be one in which communities, cities, and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured and unequal than today. The projected 4° Celsius warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down.”

Limiting temperature rise to 2° C is still not impossible, according to a paper by Michel den Elzen and colleagues, published in Energy Policy in February 2013, but will require immediate emergency action. To have a medium chance of limiting global warming to 2°C, developed nations, including the United States, must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020. Current emissions reduction pledges from developed countries add up to only 12-18% below 1990 levels by 2020, and the U.N. Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report found that the gap between current pledges and what’s needed to limit warming to 2° C to be between 8 and 13 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent. (In 2005, emissions from the world’s cars, buses, and trucks were roughly 5 gigatonnes.) It is clear that the world is currently not on the course to limit warming below 2° C unless it changes its energy policies dramatically and quickly.

No such dramatic change is even being considered by the United States. Instead, the State Department and the US Army Corp of Engineers are on track to permit two of the largest oil and coal projects in the world—the plan to export tar sands oil through the Keystone XL pipeline and the plan to export coal from ports in the Pacific Northwest. These projects, if completed, will act as “carbon bombs” and push the planet inexorably towards a global temperature rise of 4-6° C in this century.

The Coal Export Carbon Bomb

Coal companies plan to build two export facilities in Washington State from which 100 million tons of coal would be shipped to Asia, doubling U.S. coal exports from today’s levels. Three more coal export terminals are planned for Oregon. The Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry  Point alone, if built, will be the largest coal terminal in North America.

“The battle over coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest is the key U.S. climate fight of the next few years,” said David Roberts, environmental journalist for Grist magazine. “Coal-port expansion is the fifth most carbon-intensive project currently planned in the world, bigger than anything else over which American politicians have control.”

Last year, in the first phase of the struggle to prevent coal export from the Northwest, activists sparked a grassroots movement, turning out unprecedented numbers of people to submit E.I.S. scoping comments and crowd the E.I.S. scoping hearings on the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal and the massive trains that would transport coal from the Powder River Basin through Washington. More than 2,000 people attended the December 13, 2012 Seattle scoping hearing on the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point. So far activists have used the due process provisions built into the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to voice their opposition. At issue is the scope of the environmental impact statement, whether it will be a project-specific EIS, confined to the impacts on areas near the individual proposed terminals, or a programmatic EIS, which allows for crossing political boundaries, covering multiple ecosystems, and evaluating cumulative impacts.

On April 25, 2012 Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber wrote a letter to Obama Administration officials, calling greenhouse gas emissions a major concern, and stating that “if the United States is going to embark on the large-scale export of coal to Asia it is imperative that we ask – and answer- the question of how such actions fit with the larger strategy of moving to a lower carbon future.”

In a recent letter to the national Council on Environmental Quality, Washington Governor Jay Inslee joined Governor Kitzhaber in urging, in the strongest possible terms, a thorough examination of the greenhouse gas and other air quality effects of continued coal leasing and export. Shortly after the receipt of Gov. Kitzhaber’s 2012 letter the White House Council on Environmental Quality convened a series of meetings with federal regulators on the issue. CEQ has declined to say what it has been discussed in the meetings and e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have been heavily redacted. Paul Shukovsky, writing in Energy and Climate Report, says that statements made in recent months, and unredacted portions of the e-mails, show that the Army Corp of Engineers is expected to announce a narrow approach to the environmental analysis.

Although it may take two or more years before a draft EIS is released, and longer before final decisions are made on the proposed Longview and Cherry Point coal terminals, coal trains are already crossing Washington on route to Canadian ports. At present, three coal trains daily (six roundtrip) travel on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) main line from the Powder River Basin (eastern Montana/Wyoming) to Canada, through the rail corridor parallel to the Columbia Gorge and the Salish Sea into B.C. In Jan. 2013, Port Metro Vancouver issued a permit that will allow Neptune Terminals to expand its capacity from 12 million to 18 million metric tonnes of coal annually. An additional proposed expansion at Fraser Surrey Docks, which sits on the Fraser River, would increase the port’s capacity for exporting coal by as much as eight million tonnes per year. If completed, the two proposals, combined with existing capacity to export coal, would make Metro Vancouver the largest coal export hub on the continent.

In November 2012, a group of North America’s leading climate scientists signed a letter asking the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to delay making any decisions on expansion at the Neptune Terminals and Fraser Surrey Docks.  “Converted into global warming emissions, this volume of exported coal will release, when burned, more than 100 Mt of CO2 emissions per year,” the letter states. “A volume of global warming pollution much larger than all the emissions within BC each year, and more than that associated with oil exports from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.” Climate activists in B.C. have described Port Metro Vancouver’s process for reviewing the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal as meaningless, in contrast to the in-depth environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act in the U.S.

In January 2013, Port Metro Vancouver issued a permit that will allow Neptune Terminals to expand its capacity from 12 million to 18 million metric tonnes of coal annually. An additional proposed expansion at Fraser Surrey Docks, which sits on the Fraser River, would increase the port’s capacity for exporting coal by as much as eight million tonnes per year. If completed, the two proposals, combined with existing capacity to export coal, would make Metro Vancouver the largest coal export hub on the continent.

In November 2012, a group of North America’s leading climate scientists signed a letter asking the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority to delay making any decisions on expansion at the Neptune Terminals and Fraser Surrey Docks. “Converted into global warming emissions, this volume of exported coal will release, when burned, more than 100 megatons of CO2 emissions per year,” the letter states. “A volume of global warming pollution much larger than all the emissions within BC each year, and more than that associated with oil exports from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.” Climate activists in B.C. have described Port Metro Vancouver’s process for reviewing the Fraser Surrey Docks proposal as meaningless, in contrast to the in-depth environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act in the United States.

Any additional coal exported from Vancouver ports will have to be transported to Vancouver by trains, and it is likely that the BNSF line through Washington will be one of the routes. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway has twice been temporarily shut down by activists protesting coal. On December 12, 2011, about 100 Occupy Bellingham protestors rallied at the railroad tracks going through Bellingham, in solidarity with the West Coast Port Shutdown. Twelve people chained themselves to the tracks, effectively stopping trains headed for the Ports of Seattle and Vancouver. The Bellingham 12 were held overnight at the Whatcom County Jail and charged with trespassing and obstruction. So far they have refused to plea bargain, opting instead for a full trial in which they hope to argue that fossil fuel burning poses such an extreme threat to the earth that their blockade of the coal trains was necessary. At the next hearing, on March 21, 2013, the judge of the Bellingham Municipal Court is expected to rule on whether or not they can use the necessity defense.

[Editorial note: According to Bob Burr, a member of the Bellingham 12, on March 18 and behind closed doors with the attorneys, the judge, in his 14 -page ruling, denied the necessity defense. He also denied the defendants a First Amendment defense and use of the words “coal” and “climate.” The defendants were given the choice of either pleading guilty to reduced charges with eight hours of community service or a bench trial because the judge claimed the case was too complicated for a jury to understand. The Bellingham 12 will be meeting soon to decide what action to take next. For updates go to bham12.org]

The second blockade took place on May 5, 2012, when sixty protesters with Stop Coal in White Rock, B.C. carried their opposition to coal export to a new level. After warning Warren Buffet, the owner of BNSF, about their plans, the group camped out on the railroad tracks for most of the day to block U.S. coal trains from reaching local ports. One of the activists arrested was Mark Jaccard, an energy-environmental economist from Simon Fraser University and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. “The window of opportunity for avoiding a high risk of runaway, irreversible climate change is closing quickly,”Jaccard said. “Within this decade we will either have steered away from disaster, or have locked ourselves onto a dangerous course. When I think about that, I conclude that every sensible and sincere person, who cares about this planet, should be doing what I and others are now prepared to do.” The activists, arrested for trespassing, were issued $115 tickets. CBC provided mainstream media coverage of the action.

The Tar Sands Carbon Bomb

Similar non-violent direct action campaigns against the Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines are already being waged by the Tar Sands Blockade and Canada’s First Nations. In a recent article, Utah Tar Sands Resistance points out that resistance to the pipelines is radicalizing the environmental movement. Among the characteristics they list that make the tar sands resistance movement different than any other environmental campaign in U.S. history, are the normalization of direct action, and the involvement of rural and indigenous groups along with more typical activists.

Alberta’s tar sands contain a prodigious amount of carbon. An article in the January 2013 Scientific American states that with today’s technology there are roughly 170 billion barrels of oil to be recovered in the tar sands, and an additional 1.63 trillion barrels worth underground if every last bit of bitumen could be separated from sand. Tar sands crude is nearly 20% more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil. “ If we burn all the tar sand oil, the temperature rise, just from burning that tar sand will be half of what we’ve already seen,” warned John Abraham, Associate Professor of Thermal Sciences at the U. of St. Thomas in Minnesota, one of 18 top climate scientists urging President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. James Hansen, probably the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist, is even more emphatic. Discussing the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, he said “if tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is game over for the planet.”

The Alberta tar sands cannot be fully developed and exported without the completion of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the refinery hub on the U.S. Gulf Coast or Enbridge’s from Alberta to the supertanker port in Kitimat, BC. The proposed pipelines have aroused fierce opposition in both Canada and the US. Neither pipeline has been finally approved. In Canada, First Nations have opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline from the beginning. Organized by the Yinka-Dene Alliance, the Save the Fraser Declaration has now been signed by more than 130 First Nations. It bans pipelines and tankers in the Fraser River watershed, as well as oil tankers in the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon. Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, coordinator of the Yinka-Dene Alliance, says the First Nations are prepared to physically block the pipeline construction, if necessary. “Many of our chiefs have said that they would lay down their lives in a nonviolent way if it came to that.” The federal Joint Review Board (made up of Canada’s National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency), which is reviewing Enbridge’s application, has been met with demonstrations at their hearings throughout British Columbia. Hundreds of people turned out to oppose the pipeline in Bella Bella and Prince Rupert. In October 2012, several thousand people protested against the pipeline on the front lawn of the BC legislature, and in January 2013, a thousand more gathered to protest in Vancouver. The recent firestorm of demonstrations by Idle No More on the broader issues of First Nation treaty rights and the plight of Canada’s indigenous peoples, augments and reinforces the protests against the pipeline. Testimony at Joint Review Board hearings in Victoria was almost unanimously against the pipeline. Commenting on the cooperation between the First Nations and non-indigenous people at the hearings, Geraldine Thomas-Flurer said, “If anything, this Enbridge Northern Gateway has unified British Columbia.”

In the United States, two mass demonstrations have been held to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. After the 2011 mass rally in Washington DC, where more than 12,000 people demonstrated, Obama delayed a decision by requiring additional environmental review. Because the pipeline crosses international borders, the President has the authority to permit or deny it without input from Congress. While the additional environmental review was proceeding, TransCanada, with Obama’s encouragement, began construction of the Southern portion of the pipeline in Texas. The Tar Sands Blockade, a coalition of environmental activists and Texas landowners, resisted construction of the pipeline from the beginning with daring and sometimes spectacular direct action. Courageous young people chained themselves to heavy construction equipment, sometimes sitting inside the equipment, or inside sections of the pipeline; lived for days seventy feet above the ground, perched precariously in tree slings, or makeshift tree platforms; and refused to give way until they were pepper- sprayed, tasered, and physically removed by law enforcement officials. Dozens of activists were jailed and held on exorbitant bonds. Photographs of the actions were posted all over the internet, and videos uploaded to You Tube. Support actions sprang up all over the country, including actions in Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New York, and Washington.

The second mass rally against the Keystone XL pipeline took place on February 17, 2013 with more than 40,000 people marching from the Capitol Mall to the White House to urge President Obama to refuse a permit for the pipeline. 350.org, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups organized the rally and a carefully staged civil disobedience action in which prominent environmentalists and journalists were arrested. The Feb. 17th action did garner some attention from the mainstream media. The New York Times came out against the pipeline; Thomas Friedman, a columnist who considers himself a centrist, also came out against the pipeline, urging environmentalists to cue up the protests and “go crazy” if Obama approves it.

On March 1, 2013, the State Department released its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) (written by a consulting company with ties to TransCanada) which dismisses the pipeline’s impact on global CO2 levels as irrelevant because, it claims, the Alberta tar sands will inevitably be mined and exported whether the KXL pipeline is built or not. Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune, called this assertion “inaccurate” and “devastatingly cynical.” As industry analysts admit, the Alberta tar sands are landlocked and alternatives to the KXL pipeline are far more expensive and could delay full development of the tar sands indefinitely. The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, opposed by First Nations and the province of British Columbia, could be held up in litigation for years. Pipelines to the Atlantic are already full. Rail transport is too expensive and existing facilities are inadequate to handle the volume of tar sands oil already being produced. Building the KXL pipeline is so critical to Alberta’s future that the province’s Energy Minister, Ron Liepert, said “if there was something that kept me up at night, it would be the fear that before too long we’re going to be landlocked in bitumen.”

The State Department is expected to complete its review and have a recommendation for the President in a few months. Meanwhile, the non-violent direct action campaign against the pipeline is continuing. A week of actions to Stop the Tar Sands Profiteers is planned for March 16th-23rd. On March 11, 2013, over one hundred people held a “funeral for our future” at TransCanada’s office outside Boston. Twenty-six people were arrested when they locked arms and blockaded entrance to the office. Wen Stephenson interviewed some of the young people participating in the action for an article in Grist Magazine. Alli Walton, 20, wrote the group’s online statement, “We stand together as representatives of a desperate generation,” she wrote, “Today, we hope to present our political leaders with an example of the courage needed to confront the climate crisis by putting our bodies in the way of corporations whose activities threaten our society”. The students acknowledge the fear they feel before engaging in civil disobedience. Ben Thompson, a 22-year-old first-year PhD student in mathematics at Boston University, said, “But the fear that I felt around the action pales in comparison to the fear I feel around climate change. I’ve spent sleepless nights and had panic attacks at 4 a.m., thinking about, you know, reading reports, and just thinking, like, are we really doing this? Am I really expected to read this and then go do my studies? Like nothing’s happening? This is insane. And so I don’t know if that fear helps extinguish the other fear.” Wen Stephenson’s article can be found at http://grist.org/climate-energy/the-children-why-a-generation-is-putting…

Bourtai Hargrove is a grandmother, a retired lawyer, and an activist with Olympia FOR’s climate crisis group.