Upside Down World: Chief Erasmus Discusses the Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline

Dene Chief Bill Erasmus (Photo courtesy of Josh Lopez)


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The Dene First Nation is located not far from Alaska in Canada’s Northwest Territories. “We’re what is called ‘people that are on top of the world’ because we’re in the most extreme northern parts,”said Bill Erasmus, Dene national chief, as he protested outside the White House on Sept. 3. From their lofty perch, the Dene have an important perspective to offer on how the planet is fairing. The verdict: Not so well. “Our people say the world is upside down.”

In an effort to turn things right side up, Erasmus joined with thousands of others who participated in Tar Sands Action‘s two-week protest against the proposed 1,700 mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. The continued mass civil disobedience in front of the White House, which led to the arrests of 1,252 people, sent an unmistakable message to President Obama, who alone will determine whether the project moves forward: If you approve it, there will be political consequences.

Apparently that message needs sending because the irreversible environmental damage from TransCanada’s proposed pipeline doesn’t seem to matter much in Washington, despite the fact that it would cross through six states, more than 70 rivers and streams, and the Ogallala Aquifer.

The New York Times opposes the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and in an April 3 editorial wrote:

The environmental risks, for both countries, are enormous. The first step in the process is to strip-mine huge chunks of Alberta’s boreal forest. The oil, a tar-like substance called bitumen, is then extracted with steam or hot water, which in turn is produced by burning natural gas. The E.P.A. estimates that the greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil — even without counting the destruction of forests that sequester carbon — are 82 percent greater than those produced by conventional crude oil.

The project poses a major threat to water supplies on both sides of the border. Turning two tons of tar sand into a barrel of oil requires four times as much water as producing a barrel of conventional oil. Operations in Alberta have already created 65 square miles of toxic holding ponds, which kill migrating birds and pollute downstream watersheds, a serious matter for native communities.

In the United States, the biggest potential problem is pipeline leaks. The Keystone XL would carry bitumen — which is more corrosive than crude oil — thinned with other petroleum condensates and then pumped at high pressure and at a temperature of more than 150 degrees through the pipeline.

Last July, an older bitumen pipeline in Michigan spilled 800,000 gallons of the stuff into the Kalamazoo River. A new TransCanada pipeline that began carrying diluted bitumen last year has already had nine spills.

The Keystone XL would cut diagonally across Montana and the Nebraska Sand Hills — a delicate region of porous, sandy soils — to northern Kansas before heading south to the Gulf. It would also cross the Ogallala Aquifer, a shallow underground reservoir of enormous importance for agriculture that also provides drinking water for two million people. A pipeline leaking diluted bitumen into groundwater could have disastrous consequences.

The Keystone XL pipeline would encourage greater production of the tar sands, which is already having a devastating impact, even on communities hundreds of miles away, according to Chief Erasmus.

Where I come from we’re downstream [from the tar sands oil production]. The water goes north to us, so anything that happens in the south effects us. [The] waters… are polluted and… used [in] great amounts – to develop one barrell of oil you need between four and five barrels of water, and there are no regulations as to how much water ought to be taken.

For example, in the winter, when the water is at its lowest, they take just as much as in the spring, when the water is at its highest. There’s a lack of regulations. That effects us. Our waters are at an all-time low. I’m 800 miles further north, waters are low. A thousand miles even further north, they’re even lower. That effects the animals, it effects the aquatic life, it effects us as human beings.

People are now getting diseases that people never heard of. Cancerous tumors, unusual ones. People can no longer eat the fish. People can no longer drink the water. And that’s coming further and further north. So that’s how it’s effecting us. And this pipeline means expansion, developing that even further.

Even if there was no environmental degradation caused by the tar sands extraction, burning it would still be devastating, according to founder Bill McKibben, who helped organize the recent mass civil disobedience:

[The tar sands are] the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, after only Saudi Arabia. But when we struck oil in Saudi Arabia we didn’t know about global warming. Now we do – enough to know that if we fully develop this field, in the words of NASA scientist James Hansen, it’s “essentially game over for the climate.”

Of late, it seems that extreme weather events are happening on a weekly basis, yet rarely does the mainstream media mention the words climate change or global warming. But for the Dene, ignoring the reality of climate change isn’t an option. Chief Erasmus said:

The equator is down in the middle of the world. If there is a two percent increase in [temperature in] the middle of the world, it’s an eight percent increase for us at the top of the world. That’s why we’re so concerned, because the ice caps are melting, the north is changing.

Right now, at this time of the year, this is September, usually the animals are running: the carribou, the moose, the buffalo, and so on. But they’re not. Their whole cycles are changing. It’s being delayed so that animals are going by the weather [and] they’re not going into their normal patterns.

Bears, for example, usually hibernate now, but they won’t until later in October or even into November. Cycles of animals are changing. What that means is, for example with the bear, you disrupt his annual cycle: he goes into hibernation late, it gets warmer sooner, he comes out of hibernation sooner. So the bear hasn’t really rested [and] is not the same.

As things turn upside down, the Dene, sitting atop the world, may be among the first to fall, but rest assured we will all quickly follow suit. Unless, of course, we join with them to turn things right side up.

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