The Universal Notebook: Standing tall against tar sands

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Back in August I was pleased to hear that Aylie Baker had been arrested.

Finally, an idealistic, young, local person had had the moral courage to stand up against the forces that are destroying this country and this planet.

Baker is a Yarmouth High School graduate. To the extent that we get to know who high school kids are it is often through athletic accomplishments, and Baker – tall, strong, hardworking and quiet – was a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court. Then she went off to Middlebury College, played some more basketball, and, more importantly, blossomed into the engaged social activist she is today.

Upon graduation in 2009, Baker traveled the Maldives, Palau, Yap, Chiloe, and the Canary Islands as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. In 2010 she traveled to Chile as a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism to write about Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago.

Her mentor as a Middlebury Fellow was Bill McKibben, America’s leading environmentalist, author of “The End of Nature.” So when McKibben sounded the alarm on the threats posed by refining Canada’s tar sands, Baker was one of those who answered the call.

The Canadian province of Alberta holds the second largest pool of carbon on Earth after the Saudi oil fields, an area of tar sands about the size of Florida. But unlike the sweet-flowing Saudi crude, the Alberta tar sands are essentially oily dirt that has to have steam injected into it to make it fluid enough to pump as a slurry to refineries. TransCanada has proposed building a 1,700-mile pipeline at a cost of $7 billion to pump up to 900,000 barrels per day of tar or oil sand from Alberta to U.S. refineries in Texas.

Tar sands pipelines already exist – and leak. In 2010 alone, the Enbridge pipeline spilled 1 million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River, 275,000 gallons into a suburb of Chicago, and 126,000 gallons in North Dakota. But leaks and spills are the least of the environmental worries. Mining the Alberta tar sands would require clear-cutting 740,000 acres of boreal forest and running a pipeline through the massive Ogallala Aquifer that provides drinking water to millions of people in the Midwest.

Most dire, however, are scientific predictions that if all the carbon in the tar sands were burned as fuel the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could rise from present levels of about 390 parts per million (already enough to trigger climate changes) to close to 600 ppm. That’s why Baker, echoing her mentor McKibben, calls the proposed Keystone LX pipeline “a 1,700-mile fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.”

And that’s why Baker was one of the 1,252 American citizens arrested this summer during a two-week Tar Sands Action protest outside the White House.

“You are allowed to protest as long as you keep moving,” Baker explains. “You get arrested for standing or sitting.”

So for standing up for the Earth, Baker was arrested, handcuffed, hauled away in a paddy wagon, booked and released on bail. But she says it was worth it.

“I felt it was my duty as a citizen to put myself out there,” says Baker, who now works for the Vermont Folklife Center.

The protests took place outside the White House because President Obama has the power to authorize or deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit. Until the Tar Sands Action and protests by virtually every environmental group in the country, it looked as though the pipeline would sail through easily.

Earlier this month, Obama announced that “because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process” a decision on the controversial pipeline would be delayed until after the 2012 election. A temporary victory at best. Obama being a political weasel at worst. In either case, a massive commitment to a filthy petro-future has been averted for the moment, thanks in large part to the willingness of Americans like Baker to put themselves on the line.

“It’s inspiring to me to have helped bring that about,” Baker says of the stay of execution. But she worries that our addiction to oil is “keeping us from being innovative.”

Unfortunately, the same high energy costs that make sustainable alternative forms of energy economically viable also make expensive, foul fossil-fuel extraction financially feasible.

“Maine is the tailpipe of the United States,” Baker warns. “It will effect us all. No one is going to be exempt.”

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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