Editor's Note: As many as 40,000 protesters from 30 states participated in rallies Sunday in Washington, D.C., urging President Obama to curb pollution from fossil fuels, including tar sands; nix the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring more tar sands crude from Canada to refineries in Texas; and take bold action to address the climate crisis. By some estimates, it was the biggest protest march for climate change action in the nation's history. NAM’s Ngoc Nguyen spoke with Denny Larson, the executive director of Global Community Monitor, who was at the rallies in D.C. with members of a tar sands refinery coalition whose members live near oil refineries. Larson says tar sands crude is already being refined in the U.S. and increasing pollution and health problems.
Why did you and other members of the Tar Sands Refinery Collaborative participate in the climate rallies on Sunday?
We want to make sure that people who are part of movement for fixing the climate problem understand that number one, tar sands are already in the U.S. and affecting millions of people even without the Keystone [XL] and most people within the climate movement still don’t understand that. So we want to get everyone in the climate movement educated and on board to support the tar sands refining community.
It’s not just about stopping the Keystone [XL] pipeline…which we all support. We need the climate movement to start paying attention to people of color communities on the fenceline of tar sands refineries, because we need a lot of action out of the EPA enforcement division and Department of Justice, because we believe a lot of the pollution impacting the neighborhoods is illegal and perhaps criminal and deserves bold action on the part of the community.
Where is tar sands crude currently being refined in the U.S.?
The Midwest right now is the hub of where most of the stuff is processed and then with the reversal of some of the lines in Texas…places like Port Arthur and Houston are beginning to receive significant amounts of tar sands, but they are waiting for the southern leg of the Keystone [XL] to be completed so that they can bring more in.
What about in the San Francisco Bay Area?
[Forest Ethics] identified that Chevron [in Richmond] and Tesoro [in Martinez] have received tar sands crude. The Phillips refinery up there in Rodeo… they’re trying to get permission to increase tanker traffic…These tanker routes are relatively new…a lot of tar sands comes in via pipeline that we know about… [so when there’s] news that…oh geez, they want to bring more tankers in, well, you know that means that they want to bring in a source of heavy crude oil that can’t be brought in by an existing pipeline, and that pretty much means tar sands.
Why now? What opportunity exists now in terms of pushing Pres. Obama to address climate change?
He has four years now where he doesn’t have to worry about election politics…obviously that was a big problem that hindered a lot of environmental initiatives including a number by [U.S. EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson. Now they don’t have that excuse. They also have the opportunity to create the legacy...so it’s that legacy opportunity for the administration. We have four years to hold their feet to the fire so they can’t come back to us and say yeah, yeah but the election.
What actions should he take?
We want to define his broad statement about doing something about the climate. We want that to say 1) no Keystone [XL]; 2) crack down on tar sands oil refineries processing the stuff right now; and look very seriously at expansion permits for doing tar sands. And consider the types of environmental requirements put upon them to truly make them safe and clean… The third thing is, we need to reverse the flow, it’s flowing in today on rail and ship and pipeline and we need to set a course to send it back and we’re not going to take it anymore…we’ll get it from somewhere else because we’re going to bring our consumption of oil dramatically down and increase our clean energy to replace it.
I’ve heard it argued that even if the U.S. rejects tar sands, it will be bought and processed elsewhere in the world, such as Asia, so we wouldn’t reduce carbon pollution overall, and we’d miss the opportunity to cash in on the boom.
We’re going to miss out on an opportunity to poison millions of people and I think that’s an opportunity we should pass on. I don’t think it’s an opportunity at all. It’s an opportunity for destruction. We shouldn’t be cashing in on stuff like that that pollutes and tears apart communities. Like in Detroit, that expansion [of the Marathon refinery] there has literally torn apart the community. It got so bad [Marathon] started to have to buy up neighborhoods from the solutions in the refinery, but then they are drawing a line in the community. [They say] these two blocks, we’ll move you out and these two blocks you have to stay. It created an incredible amount of social problems in southwest Detroit for the community.
You want the president to take specific actions, but what about broader climate change legislation such as the cap and trade proposals that failed in 2010?
What they need in those refinery communities is, for example, they need EPA to really come in and investigate and crack down on what’s happening there in the way of toxic releases, the fires, explosions, flaring, wastewater discharges traveling underneath the neighborhood burping up benzene in the sewers. There are very real, immediate emergency room stuff that needs to be done immediately so that’s the primary importance to people in their day to day life. The climate change legislation is great and I’m sure we will support it but it’s always the stuff at the fenceline that kind of gets forgotten, particularly when the big movement starts and people think about the big picture, the long term…but they tend to leave the fenceline stuff behind and forget about it….these are the people most at risk from tar sands.
There are many people who live around industrial polluters, so who are the “fenceline” communities? How many people are affected?
Back in the late 1990s, the U.S. EPA looked at all the … polluting types of industries…paper mills, power plants, everything, and they ranked them on objective criteria…based on the toxic release inventory, toxicity of releases, proximity of people and permit violations and by far and away, oil refineries outranked all other industries as being the worst.
Here’s the names of some cities that have a lot of refineries…Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia, a whole bank down the East Coast…there’s a lot of people near refineries.
How does processing tar sands crude increase pollution that harms health?
When you bring in tar sands, you bring in additional pollution, additional accidents, additional flaring, additional dumping of toxins into the wastewater, additional solid waste pollution because tar sands contains more contaminants than other crude oil, so you have to pull out and dump them on somebody so it’s dirty in, dirty out.
What impact does this have on the people who live there?
[You see] more asthma attacks, respiratory problems, heart attacks, strokes, because of extra particulate pollution, cancers, childhood cancers…adult onset asthma. A whole variety of health problems. Also, it is reaching further, reaching neighborhoods that weren’t impacted before. It’s getting out and creating more problems for more people, because you’ve got more impact.
The president has said he wants to tap our domestic sources of oil and gas. Should we be moving toward cleaner-burning natural gas?
That investment is going in the wrong direction…it’s going into fossil fuels, it shouldn’t be going into gas production, it’s not really a clean energy source, because if you go into the production areas, you’ll see how contaminated they are. The contamination from the production of gas, it’s just as dangerous and now with fracking…I’d argue more than oil production, so if you add in the life cycle of gas, it’s a dirty fossil fuel like the rest of them. We shouldn’t be investing in that. We should be investing solar, wind and truly renewable clean energy.
Sign up for Our Newsletter
Get updates about the policies and topics that matter the most to you. Progressive news directly to your email.