Quitting a bad habit

Quitting a bad habit: Revelations from Obama’s tar sands decision

If you smoke cigarettes, you may have reached a desperate point where you’ve picked up a half-smoked butt from an ashtray and lit up.  Sure, it’s dirty, takes a lot of work for a relatively small reward, and is more than a little disgusting.  But it serves the purpose:  feeding a tenacious addiction.

It’s a provocative analogy to conjure as we consider President Obama’s recent announcement to postpone a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.  That 1,700-mile project, which most observers had thought was a done deal, would have transported Canadian tar sand sludge to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.  This week, Obama said he was going to review the health and environmental effects of the decision, and there are even hints that he will also consider the alarming climate-change impacts of industrial tar sands production.

Is this environmental progress we can believe in?

Maybe.  Maybe the president has been studying his personal playbook to make this bold call.  Obama, we know, has struggled with a nicotine addiction, and has been rumored to sneak off into the Rose Garden to light up.  That said, he knows that Sasha and Malia don’t want their daddy to get lung cancer, and vowed to stop.  Apparently, he succeeded; we were told after the recent Presidential health-check that Obama was “tobacco-free.”  Would it be too much to think he’s turning the page on self-destructive fuel habits as well?

Here’s a quick paragraph for those who haven’t kept up with the “unconventional fuels” debate.  Because oil is getting harder to come by and more expensive to get, many oil companies are turning to ever more far-fetched carbon-based alternatives for transportation fuel:  oil shale, coal-to-liquids, and tar sands are three of them.  Tar sands are basically proto-hydrocarbons – a mixture of sand, clay and bitumen that can be mined by the megaton, cooked into a goopy sludge that can be transported long distances in pipelines and eventually processed into something that you can put in a car or a plane to make it run.  Tar sands require more energy to find and refine than conventional oil, produce more water and air pollution, and have a carbon footprint that is so big that some climate scientists have warned that continued tar sands production would doom the planet.  In a recent piece I wrote for National Wildlife magazine, I look at how animals are acting as unwitting sentinels for humans – and are already dying in flocks because of the Alberta tar sands juggernaut.

That’s because up in Canada, there are a lot of these tar sands – which are the functional equivalent of a trove of cigarette butts.  In essence, oil companies are basically scraping the pavement for vast quantities of these butts, picking out the vestigial tobacco, liquefying it, shipping it in pipelines to a distant manufacturing plant, reprocessing the tobacco into cigarettes, repackaging it, and bringing these reformulated butts to market.  In order to do that, they’ve proposed building a giant pipeline that carves a path all the way across the country, from Montana to Louisiana, to carry these cigarette dregs.

Wouldn’t it be easier to stop smoking?

Could that be the message from Obama’s decision?  It’s far too early to tell, but we can all breathe one clean, collective sigh of relief that this truly bad idea of a pipeline will not be built during this president’s first term.  Whether you opposed the pipeline because of its climate change impacts, its vast pollution, its wrong-headed approach to our energy future, or just because it’s killing a lot of migrating birds, a sane future for this planet should not include tar sands production.

Because the sad truth is, whether you buy your Camels by the carton or scrounge them from train station platforms, if you smoke, you still stand a good chance of getting cancer.


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2 Responses to Quitting a bad habit

  1. Linda Baker says:

    While we mull over whether to feed our hydrocarbon habit by importing Canadian tar sludge, the DOE is quietly considering a proposal by Jordan Cove Energy to flip an import LNG facility in Coos Bay, Oregon to an export facility.

    If approved, Wyoming natural gas, liquified, would flow through the Ruby pipeline from the Upper Green River Valley to Oregon and cross the Pacific to a growing Asian jones.

    Pushers in the natural gas industry would make about four times more in the foreign market than they can get in Wyoming. It’s not really clear what benefit this will have for U.S. consumers, who already pay dearly for natural gas development by breathing dirty air, suffering groundwater contamination and dwindling wildlife.

    If we import tar sludge and export natural gas, killing both us and the planet, doesn’t that qualify us as certifiably crazy?

  2. Melanye Levin says:

    Yes, we are crazy. We are unable to assimilate the truth. Rather, we continue as if the truth were not there, so evident and alarming. It’s a coping mechanism, I suppose, when something is so big and so impossible that one simply can’t allow it into our consciousness.
    How do we create a frame of reference for our own annihilation? How can one find a way to relate on a personal and manageable level?
    I see where scientists are comparing climate change to baseball games I believe? They’re desperately trying to speak a language that people can relate to with probabilities and such that one would understand from sports. I think they’re on the right track with this strategy of relating to the “masses.”
    I personally just do my best to live in accordance with minimizing my impact, and being that which I believe is the best I’m able to be. I also create paintings with the hope that something of beauty and awareness with have it’s own impact.

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