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2013-09-24

Corroding Our Democracy: Canada Silences Scientists, Targets Environmentalists in Tar Sands Push

Guests

Tzeporah Berman, a leading environmental activist who has campaigned in Canada for decades around clean energy and is the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit. She is now focused on stopping tar sands extraction and building new oil pipelines. Berman is also the co-founder ForestEthics and the author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge.

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Five years ago this month, the firm TransCanada submitted a permit request to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has sparked one of the nation’s most contentious environmental battles in decades. The Obama administration initially appeared ready to approve Keystone XL, but an unprecedented wave of activism from environmentalists and residents of the states along its path has forced several delays. Among those pressuring Obama for Keystone XL’s approval is the Canadian government, which recently offered a greater pledge of reduced carbon emissions if the pipeline is built. We’re joined by one of Canada’s leading environmental activists, Tzeporah Berman, who has campaigned for two decades around clean energy and is the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit. She is now focused on stopping tar sands extraction as a member of the steering committee for the Tar Sands Solutions Network. Berman is also the co-founder of ForestEthics and is the author of the book "This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge." Berman discusses how the Canadian government is muzzling scientists speaking out on global warming, quickly changing environmental laws, and why she believes the push for tar sands extraction has created a "perfect storm" of grassroots activism bringing together environmentalists, indigenous communities and rural landowners.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Five years ago this month, the firm TransCanada submitted a permit request to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has sparked one of the most contentious environmental battles in decades. The Obama administration initially appeared ready to approve Keystone XL, but an unprecedented wave of activism from environmentalists and residents of the states along its path has forced several delays. In the summer of 2011, 1,200 people were arrested outside the White House.

Well, on Saturday, protests were held once again around the country in a national day of action urging President Obama to reject Keystone’s construction. President Obama also faces continued pressure from backers of the Keystone XL. In their latest push for the project, House Republicans have announced plans to tie the pipeline’s construction to the upcoming vote on raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Well, on Monday, delegates at the 2013 International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit that was held in Suffern, New York, called on Obama to reject the Keystone, saying, quote, "There is no single project in North America that is more significant than Keystone XL in terms of the carbon emissions it would unleash. ... As women who are already seeing the tragic impacts of climate change on families, on indigenous peoples, and on entire countries, we urge you to choose a better future by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline."

At the conference, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, described the impact that massive oil and gas extraction has had on her family and its traditional land in northern Alberta.

MELINA LABOUCAN-MASSIMO: I come from a small northern community. It’s Cree/nēhiyaw, is in our language what we call it. There’s nothing that compares with the destruction going on there. If there were a global prize for unsustainable development, the tar sands would be a clear winner—not that there’s a competition going on, by any means, but that I just think that, you know, world-renowned people, experts, are really seeing this as one of the major issues. And that’s why it’s one of the biggest—you know, the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and why Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol.

So this is what it looks like—very viscous. It’s, you know, not fluid, so it takes a lot more energy, a lot more water, produces a lot more byproduct. So, it’s equaling to—why it’s such a big area, it’s 141,000 square kilometers, equal to that of destroying, you know, England and Wales combined, or the state of Florida, for American folks. The mines that we’re dealing with are bigger than entire cities. So there’s about six, seven right now, could be up to nine. And this is—Imperial Oil, say, for example, will be bigger than Washington, D.C., alone. So that’s just a mine. And this is taken from the air, so these are some of the biggest dump trucks in the world. A lot of the issues of toxicity we’re talking from the air, so these are some of the biggest dump trucks in the world.

And a lot of the issues for toxicity that we’re dealing with is, and which relates to the water, is these huge tailing ponds. They’re called ponds, but they’re actually big toxic sludge lakes. They currently span 180 square kilometers just of toxic sludge that’s sitting on the landscape. So, every day, a million liters are leaching into the Athabasca Watershed, which is, you know, where our families drink from. I’m from the Peace region, but it connects to the Athabasca, and it goes up into the Arctic Basin, so that’s where all the northern folks will be getting some of, you know, these toxins. And these contain cyanide, mercury, lead, poly-aromatic hydrocarbon, naphthenic acid. So, there’s a lot of issues that we’re dealing with healthwise.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Melina Laboucan-Massimo, member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation in northern Alberta.

All of this comes as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently sent President Obama a letter offering a greater pledge of reduced carbon emissions if the Keystone pipeline is built to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the United States.

Well, for more, I’m joined by one of Canada’s leading environmental activists, Tzeporah Berman. She has campaigned for decades around clean energy and is the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit. She is now focused on stopping tar sands extraction as a member of the steering committee for the Tar Sands Solutions Network. Tzeporah Berman is also the co-founder of ForestEthics and the author of the book, This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Tzeporah.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what tar sands means for you in Canada and how it has affected your whole country.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: The tar sands are the single largest industrial project on Earth. The scale is almost incomprehensible, if you’ve never been there. And they are not only the single reason that Canada’s climate pollution is going up, that we will not meet any of the targets, even the weak targets that have been set, but they’re also the most toxic project in the country. They’re polluting our water and our air. The tar sands produces 300 million liters of toxic sludge a day, that is just pumped into open-pit lakes that now stretch about 170 kilometers across Canada.

And, you know, one of the important things about what’s happening in Canada right now is that Canadian policy on climate change, on environment, on many issues, is being held hostage to the goal that this federal government, the Harper government, and the oil industry have of expanding the tar sands no matter what the cost. You know, oil corrodes. It’s corroding our pipelines and leading to spills and leaks that are threatening our communities, but it’s also corroding our democracy. What we’re seeing in Canada is the—literally, the elimination of 40 years of environmental laws in the last two years in order to make way for quick expansion of tar sands and pipelines. I mean, the Keystone is not the only pipeline this industry is proposing. It’s a spider web of pipelines across North America, so that they can try and expand this dirty oil as quickly as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is it so dirty?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: It’s really dirty because it’s—the oil is mixed with sand. So, in order to get that oil out, they have to use natural gas. More natural gas is used in the tar sands than all the homes in Canada. So, they use natural gas and freshwater to actually remove the oil from the sand, and the result is that each barrel of oil from the tar sands has three to four times more emissions, more climate pollution, than conventional oil.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how this pipeline would traverse Canada and the United States, and where it goes, what it’s for. Does the U.S. benefit from the oil going through the pipeline?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: No, this is an export pipeline. What the industry wants is, they want to get this oil off the continent, because they’ll get a better price. And so, all of the pipelines that are currently being proposed are in order so that the industry can export the oil. So, the Keystone, for example, will go all the way from Alberta straight down through the United States and out to the Gulf. And it’s not for U.S. consumption. The majority of that oil is destined to—you know, the U.S. is really just in the Canadian oil industry’s way. And the result is that this is a pipeline that is—presents enormous risk to the American people as a result of the terrible record of oil spills and leaks, and not a lot of benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: Tzeporah, you’ve been meeting with a number of scientists. This weekend, The New York Times had an interesting editorial called "Silencing Scientists," and it said, "Over the last few years, the government of Canada—led by Stephen Harper—has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists." What’s going on?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Well, first of all, the government has shut down the majority of scientific research in the country that had to deal with climate change. This is a government in denial, and they do not want to talk about climate change. So, last year they shut down the atmospheric research station, which was one of the most important places in the world to get climate data. They shut down the National Round Table on Environment and Economy. They fired hundreds of scientists, and the ones that are left are being told that they can’t release their research to us, even though it’s taxpayers-funded research. They’re also being told that they can’t speak to the press unless they have a handler and it’s an approved interview; they have to have a handler from the prime minister’s office.

So the scientists that I’ve talked to are—they’re embarrassed, they’re frustrated, they’re protesting. Last week in Canada, we had hundreds of scientists hit the streets in their lab coats protesting the federal government, because they can’t speak. They’re being muzzled—you know, to the extent that the, you know, quiet eminent journal Nature last year published an editorial saying it’s time for Canada to set its scientists free.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is an amazing story. We know it in the United States. Under the Bush administration, you had James Hansen, who was head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, who had a handler who hadn’t graduated from college. He was—I think his credential was that he been active on the Bush campaign committee, re-election campaign committee. And James Hansen had to go through him to deal with the media.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Right, well, but—and James Hansen still got to speak deal with—to speak to the media. Most of the scientists that I’m talking to in Canada can’t speak to the media at all. And if they want to talk about climate change, they’re definitely not going to get those interviews approved. But it’s not just the scientists that are being muzzled and the climate research that’s being shut down and people that are being fired. We’ve also seen an unprecedented attack on charitable organizations that deal with environmental research. The Canadian government has the majority of environmental organizations under Canadian revenue audit, and so the result is you have the majority of the country’s environmental leaders not able to be a watchdog on what the government is doing.

And secret documents reveal, through freedom of information this year, show that the government eliminated all these environmental laws in Canada at the request of the oil industry, because the environmental laws were in their way. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline crosses a thousand streams, and those—that would normally trigger an environmental assessment process. Well, when you have no laws, you have no environmental assessment. So when they eradicated all the environmental laws, 3,000 environmental assessments for major industrial projects in Canada were canceled. Now those projects are just approved without environmental assessment.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean, the activism, for you in Canada, in the United States, when clearly President Obama has been forced to delay the decision on the Keystone XL because of the massive protest against it?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: I think that what we’re seeing, not only in the United States, but also in Canada, is an unprecedented climate movement. I think that, you know, these pipelines have provided a tangible focus for communities on the ground. And the oil industry and the government have, in a sense, created their own perfect storm, because while before it might have been people who were concerned about climate change that would get involved in tar sands or pipeline issues, now it’s people worried about their groundwater. It’s First Nations and indigenous people across North America who are protesting their rights. It’s landowners. And so, now you have this perfect storm.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the legendary Canadian musician, Neil Young, spoke out against the extraction of tar sands oil in Canada and its export to the U.S. through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He was speaking to a National Farmers Union rally in Washington, D.C. Neil Young described his recent visit to a tar sands community in Alberta, Canada.

NEIL YOUNG: The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. Fort McMurray is a wasteland. The Indians up there and the Native peoples are dying. The fuel is all over. There’s fumes everywhere. You can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town, and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the legendary musician Neil Young. I don’t know how many people here in the U.S. know that he is Canadian, but he is. The significance of him coming? And also, what did the climatologist, the scientist, James Hansen, call the tar sands?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Dr. Hansen has referred to the Keystone XL pipeline as the fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet. And he says that his studies are showing that if we allow the tar sands to expand at the rates that the government and industry want it to expand, then it’s game over for the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Tzeporah Berman, I saw you at the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit in Suffern, and you talked about your son, having to respond to a question of his. We only have a minute, but explain.

TZEPORAH BERMAN: One night at dinner, my son, who was eight at the time, turned to me and said, "Mommy, why does the government think you’re a terrorist?" Which is not really the conversation you want to have with your son. Because he had heard on the radio that on the Senate floor, the Harper government was proposing that we change the definition of the term "domestic terrorism" in Canada to include environmentalism.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what does that mean for you? And what does that mean for environmental activists? Where are you headed now? What are you going to do around tar sands?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Canadians who care about these issues are under attack by our own government, and we’re being told that if we—that what we do is not in the national interest, unless we support the oil industry’s agenda. But I think this government has overreached, and we are now finding—you know, our phones are ringing off the hook. People are joining the campaign and stepping up. And let’s be clear: Canadians want clean energy. Canadians, many of them, are very embarrassed about what our government is doing internationally, so our movement is growing. And so far, we have slowed down all of these pipelines and the expansion.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the alternative?

TZEPORAH BERMAN: Well, the alternative for Canada is not only clean energy, renewable energy, which now we can build at scale—we know that—but it’s also supporting other aspects of our economy, because when you support only one aspect of your economy, the most capital-intensive sector in the country, then it starts to destroy your manufacturing base, your service industry, your tourism industry. We need a diversified economy in Canada, and that’s not—and that’s entirely possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Tzeporah Berman, I want to thank you for being with us, leading environmental activist in Canada. She’s campaigned for decades around clean energy, former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit, now focused on stopping tar sands extraction.

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