Revolution #246, September 25, 2011

Report from DC Tar Sands Protests

Standing Up Against the Killing of Earth's Ecosystems

From August 20 to September 3, 1,253 people were arrested at sit-ins at the White House in Washington, D.C., in protests opposing the development of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The actions were initiated by environmentalist Bill McKibben, author Naomi Klein, climatologist James Hansen, actor Danny Glover, and others (see ) ( The Sierra Club and other environmental groups supported the protests.

The Keystone XL would double the amount of oil flowing from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast—at a time when the planet’s environment has already been taken to the precipice of major disaster. This includes the real danger of approaching tipping points that could trigger runaway climate change.

Tar sands oil is extremely dense petroleum mixed with sand and clay. The petroleum has the consistency of thick tar, requiring either strip mining of the deposits or using large amounts of steam and solvents to force it to flow to wells. Tar sands oil extraction and burning is extremely energy intensive, producing three times more greenhouse gas (the main cause of global warming) than conventional oil production. Production of tar sands oil in Alberta is causing vast destruction of forests and spoiling ecosystems, land and water sources with toxic waste products.

The tar sands projects in Alberta are already the “world’s largest energy project, the world’s largest construction project and the world’s largest capital project,” according to Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Organizers for the protests called the pipeline a “fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet.”

President Obama is expected to decide on whether or not to allow the pipeline to be built sometime this fall.

The D.C. civil disobedience actions represented the most significant environmental protest since the demonstrations at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009. The tar sands protests were motivated by the need to expose and confront the extreme environmental situation and danger to the planet. This is extremely important given that this is something that is either not widely known and acknowledged among people broadly in society, or if people do know about it, they aren’t acting in a way that is commensurate with the seriousness of the problem.

The D.C. actions were largely ignored and censored by the mainstream media, contributing to the general ignorance and inaction in society about the environmental crisis. On the other hand they did succeed in breaking into a few major mainstream news sources, and so millions may have heard for the first time  about the danger of the tar sands and that there was active opposition.

 A team of us went from the West Coast to join in with the sit-ins and spread revolution.

Through the course of the days of protest, the momentum built to a point where 243 people were arrested on the final day while hundreds more rallied in Lafayette Square Park. Taking part in the sit-ins were prominent scientists; environmental, religious, and indigenous leaders; former Obama staffers; Hollywood actors; and activists. Among the well-known figures arrested were James Hansen, Daryl Hannah, Margot Kidder, film director Josh Fox, Bill McKibben, and Naomi Klein.

The actions drew people from coast to coast, including many people who have been impacted by extraction of natural gas through fracking,1 which is poisoning waters, land and people in major portions of the American “heartland.” There were people from mainly rural areas in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Montana, Texas, Nebraska, Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky and many other places. Teri Blanton, with an environmental group called Kentucky Rising fighting mountain-top removal and strip mining for coal, told Revolution, “We’re destroying the planet earth… Imagine if all our voices were echoed here together at one time, the power our voices could have.”

There were a number of indigenous people who spoke about the destruction of their lands in Alberta and elsewhere from tar sands and other energy extraction projects. Kandi Mossett with the Indigenous Environmental Network spoke about the pipeline’s threat to the Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest sources of fresh water on the planet. She movingly spoke at a rally about how she and countless friends, and relatives of friends are sick, and some have already died from cancer, due to the poisoning from energy projects taking place where she lives in North Dakota, and in Canada.

Many others came deeply disturbed and compelled to stand up against what they understand to be the killing off of earth’s ecosystems through climate change—and with a deep feeling that the entire future of the planet and humanity is on the line. A woman in her late 20s from Sebastopol, California told Revolution she had traveled all that way and gotten arrested on the same day of her young daughter’s first day in school. She felt she had to do this because otherwise there would be no future for her kids. She, like others, told us that for years she had composted, recycled and did everything she could think of to “live green,” but had come to realize that this was not enough and that the danger represented by climate change had to be actively confronted. In a similar way, an “eco-mom” writing on the tar sands action website said that she has now realized that she was being manipulated into complacency by her previous “lifestyle” approach and that "I am responsible if I don't stop it. I honestly don't believe I have any other choice. I don't want the responsibility for destroying our planet on my head."

Josh Fox, director of the Oscar-nominated film Gasland, told Revolution, "This is one of the most important things anyone could do in their life…. We’re seeing a changed planet earth right now and we need to move out of that as fast as possible. We don’t need this oil. We don’t need gas from fracking, we don’t need coal from mountain-top removal, we don’t need oil from deep water drilling. We don’t need that. Those are oil companies that are putting the whole planet at risk. It’s like they’re putting a gun to your head, and they’re doing it for profits. And the fact of the matter is that we can start to replace all of that with renewable energy and we need to start doing that in a hurry, we need to do it right now.”

The D.C. protesters were people who deeply cared about the earth and are moved to stand up in its defense. Many were acting in ways they never had. A woman in her 50s from Massachusetts told Revolution she had petitioned, written letters to the editor, marched, and rallied, but never done anything like getting arrested, which was "way out of my comfort zone." People were moved by a deep sense of purpose. At the same time the actions were characterized by real illusions on people’s parts about expecting Obama to “do the right thing.”

During the days of action, people from far-flung areas hooked up, exchanged information and contact info, and made plans for more actions. There were important discussions and debates about the environmental dangers and what must be done. As we talked to people, a picture emerged of how this system of capitalism, which is putting the whole planet in danger with its assaults on the environment, is also intensifying the ripping apart of the environment and the poisoning of people in the imperialist heartland—from the mass destruction of boreal forests (sub-arctic evergreen forests in the northern hemisphere) and immense toxic ponds of water contaminated with tar and chemicals in the Alberta tar sands, to the massive spread of fracking throughout the U.S., to the destruction of wildlife habitat, mountains, and forests through coal mining in the Southeast U.S. especially.

There were important beginning debates over the role played by Obama and back-and-forth over the causes of and solutions to the situation that people very much realized is an emergency. There continue to be, frankly, deeply seated and profound illusions held by most, including among those who see the tremendous dangers, about what it is we actually confront in moving to stop this planetary devastation. Time after time we heard from people who, despite acknowledging the many ways Obama had failed to protect the environment as they had hoped, still thought that the point of these protests was to either pressure or provide him with the backing to “stand up as a leader, do what he had promised and protect the environment” by ruling against the pipeline. As we engaged and struggled with people over how Obama was acting as the chief representative overseeing an exploiting and planet-destroying system, there was also movement in people's thinking and a real openness to the ideas presented in Revolution’s special issue on the environmental emergency (issue #199), including the article "Some Key Principles of Socialist Sustainable Development," and interest in engaging with the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) from the RCP.

We passed out the recent piece from Revolution, Barack Obama and the ‘If Only’ Blues,” which includes this paragraph: “The real Obama IS fighting—against you, and the fundamental interests of humanity. He IS doing what he thinks is right—right for the system over which he presides, the system of capitalism-imperialism. And he is doing what he believes in—which is the continued defense and expansion of that system.”

This point was underscored directly in the course of the protests when Obama refused to meet with or even acknowledge the protests—in the meantime, his State Department gave the go-ahead for the Keystone Pipeline XL. Then on the last weekend of the protests, Obama announced he was going against his own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by refusing to enforce stricter ozone pollution standards that he had promised to enforce and instead sticking with Bush-era standards. On top of this, in just the past month the Obama administration also tentatively approved drilling for oil in the Arctic and opened up 20 million more acres of the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling.

These realities highlight the need for people to understand and confront what we are up against in stopping and reversing the environmental emergency, and to work for building truly massive political resistance to environmental destruction now, linked to building a movement for revolution.


1. High-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals to release trapped natural gas from deep in the earth.


Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond