Internal Combustion

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

What entitlement! I hit the gas, power off to my destination. No one asks me whether the trip is serious or banal, necessary or foolish, conscious or impulsive. I just go, ripping up the miles as though they were daydreams. The engine purrs. My name is Everyman, and I have the power of gods.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not addicted or anything. I can get off oil whenever I want to. On the other hand, I may be willing to sacrifice 740,000 acres of pristine boreal forest in Northern Canada — part of one of the largest intact ecosystems left on the planet — along with, oh, 166 million birds, and all the remaining caribou in Alberta, before I do. Tough call.

“The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit. When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the Earth’s climate system and to its oceans.

“Now that we do know, it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy. As scientists, speaking for ourselves and not for any of our institutions, we can say categorically that Keystone XL is not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest.”

This is what a group of 19 prominent climate scientists, including Dr. James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote recently to President Obama, who has the authority to nix the proposed 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to oil refineries in Texas and Oklahoma. All he has to do is deny the permit that would allow the pipeline to cross an international border. It’s Obama’s call alone; Congress has no say in the matter.

Hansen is one of hundreds of people who have been arrested in front of the White House recently in an ongoing protest against the construction of the pipeline, in what may be the most crucial showdown on climate change and national policy the country has yet seen.

“The stand against tar sand oil is basically about protecting God’s creation and God’speople,” said one of the protesters, United Church of Christ minister Rev. Mari Castellanos. “The process of extraction destroys the boreal forest and wetlands, leaves behind enormous lakes of toxic waste and causes high levels of greenhouse gas pollution. To engage in peaceful protest against it is sacramental.”

Everyman in handcuffs?

Can we stop the human contribution to climate change? And beyond that, can we regain a sense of the sacredness of Planet Earth, the human context?

“Mother Earth,” reads the wording of Bolivian legislation that would grant legal rights to the planet and its ecosystems, “is a living, dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would not only give a serious boost to Canada’s tar-sands oil-extraction industry, which devastates a fragile ecosystem and produces enormous levels of greenhouse gas emissions; but also endangers, as the New York Times put it in a recent editorial, “highly sensitive terrain” along its route through the United States because of the possibility of toxic leakage.

On the other side of the issue, pushing the president to sign the permit and allow the pipeline — indeed, without the protests, this would just have been another done deal — is the creation of thousands of high-paying manufacturing and construction jobs, which of course are manna from heaven in the global recession.

Beyond the PR value of the jobs are the enormous corporate profits that could come from opening up the tar sands industry, pollution be damned. And Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which backs the pipeline, has an allegedly compromised relationship with that industry. Friends of the Earth reported last year that the pipeline’s would-be builder, TransCanada, has as its lead lobbyist for the project one Paul Elliott, who just happened to be a high-ranking aide in Clinton’s presidential campaign.

And beyond the profits of the oil companies and related industries are the several hundred million passenger vehicles in the United States — and the three quarters of a billion of them throughout the world — which run, either efficiently or inefficiently, on gasoline, and are emblematic of civilization itself.

They aren’t merely symbols of power, but power itself, indispensable for countless purposes both life-affirming and pointless. They are so thoroughly a part of the lives of so many people, and so basic to society as a whole, that oil addiction would appear to be here to stay, short of a techno-fix — a deus ex machina — that lets us produce fuel in near-infinite quantities from renewable, eco-benign sources.

I’m suspicious that such a fix will be found. While I believe that it must be sought, I also believe that power itself — dominion over nature — will always come with a shadow. I support the protests with a deep passion tangled in paradox.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at