Tag Archives: Obama

Tar Sands Resistance

tar sandsA new documentary chronicles resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would bring oil down from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to refineries and shipment depots in Texas.

Over a year ago, a series of dramatic acts of civil disobedience unfolded in front of the White House to try to convince President Obama to put the breaks on development of the Tar Sands. I was present at those protests and write a piece on the folly extreme extraction.

Since those demonstrations, construction of the pipeline has proceeded in some parts of the US, despite the Obama administration’s vacillation concerning the project. In Texas, protesters have engaged in a courageous campaign against the construction of the pipeline. The new documentary, called Blockadia Rising, chronicles this resistance.  Here’s the film:

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Defusing the Carbon Bomb

The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline has been described by its opponents as one of the biggest carbon bombs on the planet. This pipeline is designed to open up the Canadian tar sands to exploitation: sands contain naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water, and a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen. It takes a hell of a lot of water and energy to separate the oil out of this dense mixture, and even then the oil still needs to be refined. The Keystone XL pipeline will bring crude down from Canada, all the way across the lower forty nine, to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Of course there are many hazards associated with transporting oil all the way across the continental U.S.  In addition, however, we need to be asking ourselves a crucial question: should be really be opening up a massive store of fossil fuel at this date in history? Shouldn’t we be putting our money and our engineering expertise into developing renewable energy sources? The Keystone project, seen from outside, seems more like some sort of bizarre suicide pact or irrational, instinctual death wish than the work of a species capable of rational planning. The picture to the left shows what is left of the Canadian boreal forest after oil is extracted from the tar sands: a moonscape.

Oil company stooges in Congress recently passed legislation forcing President Obama to make a decision whether to move forward with the Keystone XL project before the end of this year.

In response, a protest campaign has developed that looks set to be one of the key struggles of the climate justice movement. Starting last night, protesters began engaging in acts of non-violent civil disobedience outside the White House to send a message to Obama. This campaign is going to last two weeks, with people being arrested solidly from now until the beginning of September. It promises to be one of the most significant campaigns of direct action in the nation’s history, and hopefully will help spark increasingly intense struggles for climate justice in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s a link to the Tar Sands Action website, which contains information about the demonstrations and suggestions about how to engage in solidarity actions.

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Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

This holiday weekend brought news of the failure of BP’s latest strategy for plugging the oil flow in the Gulf of Mexico – the ominously named “top kill.”  It now seems increasingly likely that oil will continue to foul the waters of the Gulf until ancillary wells are completed several months from now.  The scale of this disaster is hard for the human imagination to fathom.

Unfortunately your administration is deeply implicated in this, the worst environmental cataclysm in the nation and perhaps the planet’s history.  As has become widely know since the explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon rig, the Mineral Management Service completely failed in its mission to regulate the oil industry.  Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar patently abdicated his responsibility to clean up an agency that, according to a 2008 report by the Department of the Interior’s secretary general included brazen corruption (including the collection of $9 billion in oil and gas royalties in 2007) and a “culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” at the agency.

Worst still, your ill-advised decision to open up U.S. coastal waters to drilling came with false promises to Americans that technological advances had made such procedures fool proof.  As we found out only weeks after your announcement, in fact the major oil companies had absolutely no idea of how to deal with deepwater oil leaks.  Moreover, since the leak, your administration has handled BP with kid gloves, refusing to force them to reveal the extent of the spill and allowing them to pump massive quantities of toxic dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico in order to obscure the extent of the pollution.

In response to this ecological disaster, many are calling for a complete ban on offshore drilling, and for catastrophe-prone oil rigs such as the Atlantis (which continues to pump oil up from 7,000 feet below the surface) to be shut down.  This seems like the minimum step warranted by such a tragedy.  After all, offshore drilling only provides about 1% of the oil we use in the U.S. today.

We also need a major blue-ribbon investigation to determine how the calamity in the Gulf occurred.  In addition, the culture of corruption and nepotism that has been revealed at government agencies such as the Mineral Management Service and the Department of the Interior must be investigated with a special commission and culpable parties must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

But, as important as such steps are, they are not nearly enough.  In other parts of the world from which the U.S. gets its oil such as Nigeria and Ecuador, massive environmental pollution is a normal part of the oil business.  Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may simply mean moving the environmental and human rights violations to another, less zealously regulated part of the planet.

No, none of those moves are commensurate with what is clearly a turning point in history.  What the Gulf Oil Spill shows is that we need a new national energy policy based on a massive transition to truly sustainable technologies and social arrangements.  Your administration has recognized the threat to our nation that dependency on foreign oil represents; solutions you have embraced such as coastal drilling, “clean” coal (another Big Lie), and nuclear technology pander to powerful corporations and, as we now know, imperil American land, oceans, and people.  The U.S. can transform itself with amazing speed, as preparations to defend democracy before World War II showed.  Surely we are facing an even more dire planetary threat today.

There is no lack of proposals for a just transition to a sustainable national energy policy.  One particularly admirable plan comes from the Apollo Alliance.  They call for a New Apollo Program based on five key initiatives:

  1. Rebuild America Clean and Green: We must generate cleaner power and use the power we generate more efficiently – particularly in the residential, commercial, industrial, and technological sectors that make up 70% of current energy use.  The Apollo Project is calling for a range of solutions that include special funds for upgrading energy efficiency in existing buildings; consistent long-term public support for (truly) clean energy projects such as wind and solar power; and “smart” grids to bring clean energy to market; and affordable and convenient mass public transit.
  2. Make It In America: We need the new sustainable technologies to be produced locally; not only will this increase energy efficiency, but it will also help address the massive unemployment crisis that has swept the nation during the economic downturn and that continues to plague poor- and middle-class communities.  Wind turbines, solar panels, next-generation electric cars, efficient transmission lines, and green roofs – these and many other aspects of the new green economy need to be built in the U.S.
  3. Restore the U.S.’s Technological Leadership: Research and development funds in renewable power technologies have been miniscule for the last several decades in comparison to the funds funneled to the fossil fuel industries by U.S. government.  As a result, the U.S. is being supplanted by the E.U. and upcoming nations such as China in development and implementation of the technologies for a new green economy.  The Apollo Project is calling for an aggressive energy innovation agenda to double the annual federal investment in energy research and development, and for the creation of a National Energy Innovation Fund to take the most promising new technologies to commercial scale.
  4. Tap the Productivity of the American People: The dismantling of the industrial economy over the last generation in the U.S. has also seen a massive disinvestment in the American people.  We need to create green paths out of poverty by reinvesting in state and local green-collar worker training initiatives.  High-skill, high-wage jobs must be the wave of the future.  The Apollo Project is calling for worker training initiatives, higher education scholarships, and union apprenticeships, as well as a clean energy service program akin to the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to allow ordinary citizens to get involved in transforming the nation.
  5. Reinvest in America: The Apollo Project advocates a cap-and-invest mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, trade the allowances, and invest proceeds directly back into energy efficiency, renewable power, transit and transportation, and green workforce initiatives.  The project calls for the establishment of a Clean Energy Investment Corporation to invest these funds, to ensure accountability in the spending of public funds, and to help communities make the transition to a green economy.

Admirable as these Apollo Project initiatives are, they need to be supplemented by moves to ensure climate justice on a global scale.  Technological leadership within the U.S. must, for example, be supplemented by agreements for technology transfer to the developing nations of the world in order to insure that their path to development is, unlike ours, a sustainable one.  In many cases, the greening of the U.S. economy will have a worldwide impact, but such a transformation needs to take place as part of a global movement for climatic, economic, and political justice.

Earth Day was first observed just after forty years ago in reaction to a horrific oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.  The modern environmental movement was born out of revulsion at the environmental devastation caused by the spill and out of anger at the state of political torpor that characterized Washington.  Today, our waters are once again fouled by massive quantities of oil, and our body politic is polluted by corporate corruption.  Today, the countdown towards irreversible, cascading climate change is nearing zero.

The catastrophic Gulf Oil Spill represents a terrible tragedy, but it may also offer the last opportunity your administration has to turn the political tide away from unsustainable corporate-influenced policies and towards a just transition to a green economy.  Weighty words like redemption shouldn’t be used frequently, but this is one instance in which your actions would more than justify righteous biblical language.

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In an appearance before the U.S. congress today, Obama administration deputy special envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing testified that America intends to hold the South African government to its pledges to cut carbon emissions.  This despite the U.S.’s abstention in the vote on the $3.75 billion World Bank loan to build one of the world’s biggest coal-fired power plants.

This comes on top of the Obama administration’s recent decision to deny mitigation funds to Bolivia and Ecuador in response to their refusal to sign up for the sham Copenhagen accord.

As an article in the Guardian cogently points out, “Pershing’s comments align with the Obama administration’s policy of shifting some of the burden for dealing with climate change from the industrialised countries which have historically caused most emissions to rapidly emerging countries, such as South Africa, India, China and Brazil.”  Shifting the burden are the keywords here.

Speaking of South Africa, I also wanted to note an interesting article on the blikkiesdorps or slums created by government clearance programs in advance of the World Cup.  As the Olympics in Vancouver demonstrated yet again, sporting mega-spectacles almost always lead to increasing homelessness and diminishing civil liberties.  The World Cup in South Africa is unlikely to be any different.  Sad really – I was in South Africa during the unsuccessful bid to win the games back in 2000 and remember how decimated people were when the national bid was rejected.  I’m afraid that people’s expectations are likely to be quickly deflated.

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The continuity of imperial discourse

President Obama recently gave two speeches that should be seen as signposts of contemporary U.S. empire.  Their continuity with American exceptionalist rhetoric of the past is striking, underlining the extent to which Obama is trapped within the paradigms of the past.

The first of these speeches was Obama’s Nobel laureate acceptance address.  This address was notable for invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ringing condemnation of violence during the era of the Vietnam War: Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  President Obama then went on to twist this argument around by invoking the concept of just war.  As he summarized it, just war doctrine insures that state violence is only legitimate when it meets three conditions: “if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

The problem with Obama’s argument is that just war doctrine cannot support the imperial occupation of Afghanistan that he is currently bent on intensifying.  The war in Afghanistan can hardly be said to be in self-defense when the Taliban pose no direct threat to the U.S. and when al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.  The force being deployed in Afghanistan is anything but proportional since the U.S. is the world’s only military super-power and Afghanistan is one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet.  Finally, civilians have NOT been spared the violence of the war.  Stephen Walt recently argued that the United States has killed 12,000-32,000 civilians in Afghanistan since the war’s outbreak.  Many of these civilian deaths were caused by drones operated by private contractors.

It seems that there’s an emerging pattern in Obama’s rhetoric.  In the Nobel speech, he replayed the tropes he deployed in his celebrated Cairo address: gesture towards universal peace and understanding using lofty rhetoric, then go on to lay out plans for expanding war-making.  As Farrah Hassen points out in The Cairo Detour, U.S. policies in these countries, with their high toll of civilian deaths, have increased the risks of blowback against the U.S. rather than winning over Muslim hearts and minds.

We see a similar set of imperial contradictions in Obama’s recent speech at the Copenhagen climate summit.  After swooping in to the summit at the 11th hour, Obama delivered a talk that began by acknowledging the gravity of the global climate crisis and went on to exhort the nations of the world to make radical changes in order to save the planet.  After this uplifting beginning, however, Obama unleashed a thinly veiled attack on China, laying bare the increasing inter-imperial conflict over the right to pollute the atmospheric commons that was woven through the last two weeks of climate brinksmanship.  While calling for decisive action, Obama announced no new commitments for reducing emissions beyond the risible 4% goal announced at the onset of the conference, no significant new financing for climate adaptation and clean technology among poor countries, and no intentions to press Congress to pass climate legislation.

The U.S. under Obama thus seems to be operating firmly in the unilateralist groove carved out by the Bush administration.  He may be an exceptional man, but he’s working firmly within an exceptionalist tradition.

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