The Tar Sands: Capitalism’s Threat to the Climate


The recent explosion of environmental activism can be attributed to the concrete effects of climate change that people are seeing around them. It can be linked to the devastation wrought upon many in the U.S. around the world by Hurricane Sandy, the persistent droughts affecting food crops, forest fires, flash flooding, or the desperate plea of the tiny Maldives islands.

More then anything else, the proposal to transport the Alberta Tar Sands oil by constructing the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the refineries along the Gulf of Mexico in the US has recently propelled the struggle against global climate change into the consciousness of many, especially a new activist layer created by the Occupy movement.

Over 40 corporations have set up shop in Alberta. They are scraping the bottom of the barrel for energy sources. Despite the enormous costs and obstacles associated with mining tar sands oil, over $200 billion have been invested in the project because of its potential profitability. To realize these profits, the corporations have demanded the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pump tar sands oil all the way from Canada to the Gulf Coast of the U.S.

However, these corporate polluters are being met by growing resistance. Unprecedented protests at the White House forced Obama to temporarily halt construction of the northern portion of the pipeline until after the presidential election.

Then, in February of this year, 35,000-40,000 people marched on Washington DC in the largest climate rally in US history (during which, Obama went golfing with oil executives in Florida). The police have arrested over a thousand people at Keystone XL protests, including celebrities like actress Daryl Hannah and former NASA scientist James Hansen., an environmental organization, headed by author Bill McKibben, has seen hundreds of 350 clubs set up at colleges, universities and cities across the US, building campaigns for fossil fuel divestment.

There is also the Idle No, More movement, started by four women in Saskatoon Province, Canada in November 2012, and followed by their first National Day of Action on December 10th. Just over a month later, there were hundreds of rallies and demonstrations across Canada, with solidarity actions taking place across the US and even in northern Mexico.

What are the Tar sands?

Beneath the ancient Boreal forests in Canada lies 141,000 square kilometers of tar sands deposits and about 1.7 trillion barrels worth of bitumen. Bitumen is not the crude oil the media has painted in our minds but a solid or semi-sold form of petroleum that lies mixed with sand several feet below the forest. Its extraction and burning of it threatens to accelerate the warming of our planet.

The production of tar sands oil is three times more energy intensive than traditional crude oil, requiring water and natural gas to separate the sand and bitumen from tons of now tainted soil. Tar sands oil production is now Canada’s fastest-growing emitter of carbon dioxide. It’s extraction has left swaths of forests barren, with open pits as far as the eye can see. The leaching ponds adjacent rivers have spawned mutated fish and diseased an ecosystem embracing more than 100,000 people. (

The Keystone XL pipeline is not the only route to the international markets sought by these corporations and nations. Tar sands oil will be routed all over the US through a multitude of pipelines, threatening communities across the US with leaks and spills. Take the example of the Enbridge and Montreal/Suncor (Exxon) pipelines through New England. They propose reversing the flow of two existing pipelines. One of them is more three decades old, while the other was built 62 years ago! These pipelines were meant to only carry medium crude oil.

The transportation of tar sands requires a unique infrastructure. To keep the tar sands moving it must be heated and pressurized, which increases the chances of leaks and spills. One spill would spell disaster for surrounding communities. Although Enbridge has a “zero spill policy” they have had nearly 1,000 spills in the last 10 years. In July of 2010 in Michigan, Enbridge spilled 1.1 million gallons of oil. Once the tar sands makes it to the refineries or ports it will be shipped to markets around the world.

High oil prices over the last decade have increasingly made the costly production of oil from unconventional sources – like tar sands and shale oil – irresistible to investors. In the aftermath of the failed war for oil in Iraq, and with instability threatening access to oil supplies around the world, tar sands oil will help supplement US capitalism’s “addiction to foreign oil”.


Global carbon levels are currently at 394 parts per million (the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), the highest in 800,000 years. This is up from 280 ppm just before the Industrial Revolution. There has been a growing consensus among climate scientists that any global temperature rise above two degrees Celsius would have catastrophic consequences. Climate modeler Ken Calderia explained that to avoid this, “what matters is our total emissions rate,” or how fast we add carbon to the atmosphere. Climate scientist James Hansen and many others claim 350 ppm would be far safer and more livable for humans, but debate continues over the exact number.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported the need for a 24 to 45% cut in emissions by 2020. These bold numbers show how quickly we must act, and the scale on which we need to move to achieve a sustainable energy supply.

Why won’t the ruling class go green?

Despite recent studies showing new existing technologies are cheaper in some areas, big corporations have completely failed to make the needed investment to rapidly develop sustainable energy sources. Yet, corporations are flocking to invest in the tar sands. What matters to the corporations that dominate the world economy is maximizing short-term profit. From their point of view, the cost of climate change or the quality of life for workers are not factored into the cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, capitalist governments around the world have failed to come to any meaningful agreement. Two decades of UN climate summits have failed to yield any significant drop in global emissions or transition to renewable energy. Now, in the midst of the continuing global economic crisis, what petty pledges had been made are rapidly being curtailed.

Given the interconnected nature of our global economy, international cooperation is paramount to tackling this issue. But, capitalism is based on competition for market share and profits, not on cooperation for the needs of the environment and working people. Capitalist polluters use their governments to halt anything perceived to affect profits.

Carbon taxes, permit trading, green growth, and now divestment are a few of the ideas for “solving global warming” on a capitalist basis. Carbon taxes, although they could result in some lowering of emissions, are horribly burdensome to working people who spend a greater portion of their income on energy. Socialists could not support such measures.

Permit trading has to be the least effective and most business friendly “green” idea. It allows wealthy capitalists to pollute, as long as they can buy permits that they trade for supposedly planet-saving conservation to offset their polluting. Most cap and trade, or permit systems are so full of loopholes that things like developing cattle land in the rain forest still counts as an offset, even if it doesn’t cut emissions at all!

Divestment from fossil fuels, a campaign started by, has become popular among green activists. The campaign to get towns and universities to divest from those invested in the Alberta tar sands has attracted some of those awakened by the Occupy movement, and other new layers inspired to struggle for a greener future. The campaign has already spread to over 400 schools in the US. There has also been growing support for blockades and direct actions to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and other environmentally destructive projects like the coal export terminals on the west coast.

Divestment can be an important starting point. The campaign’s rapid growth points to the potential for building a massive challenge to the capitalist polluters in the coming months and years. But, in and of itself, divestment won’t be enough. Big oil cannot be guilt-ed, embarrassed, or squeezed in to giving up the largest profits in human history.

Our resources, our planet! Fight for a democratic socialist future!

The billionaire ruling class and their puppet politicians aren’t taking action, so it’s up to us! The 1% tries to counter-pose the interests of the planet to jobs and the economy, yet their system is driving people into poverty and mass unemployment.

In fact, far more jobs could be created by rejecting their fossil fuel status quo, and creating a massive public works program transitioning the economy to 100% renewable energy sources, expanding public transit, and retrofitting homes and buildings to be energy efficient. By campaigning for a massive, publicly-funded green jobs program, we can show the real interest of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline to be profits, not jobs, while linking the need for job creation to the need for tackling climate change.

Many environmentally conscious people in the US still hope the Democrats will take action. But, despite giving lip service when pressed, the Democrats have never given any meaningful leadership. Sally Jewell, President Obama’s nominee to replace Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior, was a banker and worked for Mobil in the oil fields. Along with her husband, she owns stocks in banks invested in tar sands!

Within weeks of John Kerry taking over as Secretary of State, the State Department released a report downplaying the potential environmental effects of the Keystone XL pipeline. Many commented at the time that this was a sign the Obama administration was getting ready to approve the pipeline, bringing the Democratic Party into collision within millions in the US who oppose the pipeline.

We’ve never been able to rely on the Democrats for the change we need. History shows that we win meaningful change by relying on our own strength to build mass movements. We have the numbers to fundamentally challenge the power of the big corporations that strangle our society if we are organized.

Alongside protests and direct action, a new and independent mass political party of working people and youth can build a powerful political blockade against the rapacious environmental policies of big business. In 2013 and 2014, we need to run independent candidates accountable to working people to give a clear voice to the millions, not the millionaire polluters. We need a fighting, democratically-run organization, that educates and acts on the interests of the vast majority – the working class.

Rejecting the profit system is essential to halting global warming. Capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels and stands in the way of an urgent transition to clean energy sources and more efficient methods of production. A democratically planned socialist economy is not just a viable alternative. It has huge inherent advantages from the point of view of saving energy. For example, it could avoid the duplication of resources, planned obsolescence, and a more rational allocation of resources based on the needs of workers and the environment, not profits.

We need to fight to take the top 500 biggest companies that dominate the economy into public, democratic ownership. This could unshackle our natural resources from the anarchy of the market, and allow us to fully harness them for the sustainable benefit of all people and the environment, instead of lining the pockets of those who already control so much.

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