What Is Massachusetts’ Future? Activists Push Governor Patrick to Define His Climate Legacy

Last month, 350 Massachusetts, a statewide affiliate of the international environmental justice organization 350.org, announced that they were going to co-sponsor an environmental forum with gubernatorial candidates at Faneuil Hall.

When the day came, volunteers from all over the Commonwealth gathered near Quincy Market. Erica Sunders from Worcester was one of them.

“I’ve been concerned with the climate crisis for quite some time, and today it’s an opportunity for us to talk to gubernatorial candidates and ask them the questions about where we are going forward in Massachusetts with global solutions,” Sunders said.

Her concerns did not come out of nowhere. In 2005, the Calgary, Alberta-based fossil-fuel company TransCananda proposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport tar sands from Western Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf.

According to Alli Welton, the coordinator for BFP’s Climate Legacy Campaign, tar sands are incredibly dangerous.

“There are these huge deposits of this up in northern Canada, and historically, no one ever thought that we would ever touch them because they are just so expensive to get out of the ground,” Welton said.

Now, she said, the high price of oil has driven companies to go to extreme lengths to get tar sands oil out of the ground—with devastating effects for the communities where tar-sands deposits are located.

“Tar sands extraction absolutely destroys the livelihoods of the indigenous communities who have been living up there,” said Welton. “It pollutes the drinking water. They often have to cut down acres and acres of forest that these communities depended on earlier for their livelihoods.”

Along with high rates of poverty, Welton said that the communities who have been affected by tar-sands extraction have high rates of cancers. “They’re just crippled by poverty, and the additional health burden of tar sands doesn’t make anything easier,” she explained.

Shea Riester, campus divestment organizer at the Cambridge-based Better Future Project, which convenes 350 Massachusetts, agrees that tar sands extraction is incredibly damaging to the environment.

“Tar sands oil is about three times as carbon-intensive to extract and to process than standard crude oil, and the main area where they’re extracting tar sands is in Alberta,” Riester explained. “They have totally decimated what was an old-growth boreal forest, one of the last untouched forests on the planet. They have completely decimated an area bigger than the size of Massachusetts.”

According to Riester, the extraction process amounts to surface mining. “It basically just means they take out everything … what they have to do is destroy everything, they have to completely scrape everything off the surface, because the tar sands are right underneath the surface,” Riester said.

Tar sands consist of heavy crude oil mixed with sand, clay and bitumen, according to Rainforest Action Network. Extraction entails burning natural gas to generate enough heat and steam to melt the oil out of the sand.

The process for extracting tar sands is not the only thing that worries environmentalists; the oil itself can have grave environmental effects, according to Welton.

“Tar sands oil is also very corrosive. So when you transport it through pipelines, it’s more likely to eat through the pipelines and leak,” Welton said.

That means tar sands extraction puts communities along the entire length of the pipeline in danger. The Keystone XL Pipeline would run through states including Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma before arriving at refineries in Texas. As long as the tar sands oil stays in the pipeline, but there have already been several tar sands spills in the past year.

Rocky Kistner of NRDC posted an article on Huffington Post about the tar sand oil’s continued negative impacts on Arkansas residents, two months after ExxonMobil’s 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline burst and spewed a gusher of thick Canadian tar sands oil through Mayflower, AR, and into Lake Conway—the state’s most popular fishing spot. Nearby residents constantly complained about headaches and coughs.

On April 3 last year, another pipeline leaked outside Houston, Texas. Coast Guard Petty Officer Steven Lehman told Dow Jones that at least 2,100 gallons of crude oil had leaked into a nearby bayou.

In July 2010, the Kalamazoo River oil spill occurred when a pipeline operated by Enbrdige burst with a six-foot break. Wisconsin Watch reports that oil in the Kalamazoo River caused the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history. The spill was particularly difficult to clean up because some of the oil sank.

“It’s still polluted. Many people have gotten cancer, and gotten sick and died from moving next to that river. There is no way to clean it up, because it sinks to the bottom because it’s so heavy.”

The neighborhood around the Kalamazoo River still has high rates of cancer today, according to Riester, even though it is not as polluted as it was a few years ago.

TransCanada posted a series of videos on their Keystone XL Pipeline website claiming that the pipeline would fit current safety standards. “The Keystone XL Pipeline will use the most advanced materials and latest technology,” safety specialist Terry Anderson says in one of the videos, title “Pipeline Safety and Inspection.” “The pipeline … is required to be inspected on a very frequent basis, every two weeks.”

Riester disagrees. “Somebody went inside the pipe while it was being constructed and took a picture of inside, and you could see light shining through the pipe,” he explained. “There was a section that even before it was constructed had a hole in it; this was a part of the pipeline that had already been built.”

The Better Future Project launched its Climate Legacy Campaign in August of last year to support Governor Deval Patrick’s efforts with the Global Warming Solutions Act and push for even greater changes.

“Ban Tar Sands Oil” is one of the proposals in the campaign. It say: “Governor Patrick should effectively deter the sale of tar sands oil in Massachusetts by establishing a Clean Fuel Standard (CFS)… a steadily decreasing CFS would necessitate a growing portion of fuel to come from low or zero-carbon sources such as cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, and renewable-powered electricity over.”

“He set a 2020 target for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as our way of trying to help solve the climate crisis, as well as our long-term goal, which is an 80 percent reduction in our emissions by 2050,” Alli Welton said.

Welton said the objective of the campaign right now is asking Governor Patrick to take a series of actions under the Global Warming Solutions Act that adequately address climate change. But there is still more to be done.

According to a report released by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a New York City-based, and non-profit international environmental advocacy group, oil industry plans, including Keystone XL Pipeline, could cause a dramatic increase in the use of the of tar sands-derived gasoline in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, a shift that would move the region backwards in its efforts to fight climate change.

A table in NRDC’s report shows that in 2012, the actual portion of demand that met with tar sands oil occupies only 0.8 percent among all the fuels. If, however, with the approved Keystone XL and refinery modifications by 2020, the demand of tar sands oil will increase to 18 percent.

Welton outlined two approaches Better Future Project believes can stem that tide.

“The first one is called ‘Ban the Worst,’ which means just keeping the most extreme, worst energy out of Massachusetts. We should shut down the remaining coal plants here and keep tar sands oil out of the state,” Welton said. “The second piece is ‘Build Only the Best.’ It’s basically saying that it’s time to draw the line from this point forward. We have the technology, we just have to commit to building it instead of making excuses and building more fossil fuels when we know that’s the wrong path to go down.”

After participating in the environment forum at Faneuil Hall, Errica Sunders had to drive back to Worcester for more than an hour. For her, it was worth the time and effort. Now she hopes politicians, universities and industry do their parts.

“It’s time to stop listening to the fossil fuel industry to tell us this is way to go and actually realizing that they are all alternatives,” Sunders said. “We have some of the greatest universities here with the most innovative minds, and they are creating ways to help us move outside those industries.”