This past weekend I was thrilled to attend the second annual Great Lakes Bioneers conference in Chicago, which has been a wonderful introduction for me this year and last to the remarkably dedicated work citizens are doing around the concept of “resilience”—a word frequently used in psychology to refers to people’s ability to bounce back in the face of life challenges and which environmentalists have adopted into an umbrella term for practices centered around how communities can create a sustainable future within an unsustainable present—to build a new world in a shell of the old. In 2012, I learned about one of the movement’s coolest big ideas, “biomimicry”—the concept of better design through imitating nature. This year I learned about “food forests,” which is amazing stuff too—“a gardening technique or land management system that mimics a woodland ecosystem but substitutes in edible trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.”
I also learned something horrifying. Please allow me to share.
You know something about tar sands, those petroleum deposits sedimented within mineral layers, concentrated in the Canadian province of Alberta. They can be converted into crude oil via a highly disruptive refining process, then transported to market via a process that is even more disruptive: overland and underwater pipelines. You know about tar sands, no doubt, because of the Keystone XL controversy. At Bioneers yesterday I attended a strategy session led by tar sands activists who were glad that the Keystone XL controversy has focused attention of the whole ghastly business; XL, because it crosses an international border, requires presidential action, which has provoked activists to launch a highly visible pressure campaign aimed at the White House. But they were worried about that attention, too—because “XL” serves a distraction from other, more proximate pipeline crises unfolding now, today, perhaps beneath a waterway or across a county near you, that you might be able to help stop now, through grassroots action.
It’s not just the record number of pipelines that are being built. There is also the newly flourishing and massively risky practice of reversing the directional flow of existing pipelines, often in conjunction with massive increases in pressure that the pipes were not designed to withstand (here’s a story about a pipeline reversal in which the volume will almost triple). That was almost certainly a major reason for the disastrous rupture of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline last March in Mayflower, Arkansas, which you may have heard about—or which you may not have heard about, given that the Federal Aeronautics Administration, in a suspicious move made in cooperation with ExxonMobil, immediately banned flights above the spill from descending below a floor of 1,000 feet, while inquiring reporters on the ground were told by local sheriff’s deputies, “You have ten seconds to leave or you will be arrested.”
One of the most monumental reversal-and-construction projects is taking place on a 485-mile pipeline that used to transport petroleum drilled in the Gulf of Mexico to the Midwest—but beginning in the spring of 2012 began moving tar sand-derived crude from Cushing, Oklahoma (the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World”), to the Gulf Coast for transportation onto the world market (a key concept—the world market; none of this has anything to do with American “energy independence”). It’s called the Keystone Pipeline Gulf Coast Project, and it has been the obsession of one of the remarkable panelists I heard last weekend. Earl Hatley, a Native American from Oklahoma and legendary environmental activist, was a principal in a lawsuit, dismissed by a federal judge last month, to keep that monstrosity from being completed. An exceptionally experienced observer of the wicked ways of the corporate carbon cowboys now deforming the North American landscape, he offered some shrewd assessments of the current state of play based on what he learned from that process.