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Between the Lines: Tar sands and Town Meeting Day

Vermont town meeting is traditionally a forum for issues that are local and often relatively small — how much money to spend on mosquito control, for example.
But sometimes the matters brought to town meeting are global and large. Many towns, for example, voiced their opposition to the continuing war in Iraq in 2005.
This year, a number of Vermont towns will be considering another big question with global implications: Should they go on record as opposing a proposal to pipe highly polluting “tar sands” oil through Vermont?
Or put another way, do Vermonters want to allow the dirtiest oil on the planet to threaten our prettiest places?
Tar sands oil is produced in Alberta, Canada, drawing from a huge reservoir of dense, carbon-heavy oil. The substance is extracted by drilling and open-pit mining — a process that has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of Canadian open space.
And that’s just the beginning. Once the lucrative tar sands oil is extracted, it needs to be liquefied, heated and piped thousands of miles to refineries and ports.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline — from central Canada through the American Midwest to Texas — has received a lot of attention, highlighted by protests led in part by Ripton resident Bill McKibben and other Vermonters.
But it’s also clear now that a Canadian company called Enbridge, and at least one other company involving Exxon Mobil, have plans to reverse an existing oil pipeline that runs from Portland, Maine, to Montreal — and use this aging pipeline to ship tar sands oil across Vermont, for export out of Portland.
The pipeline runs through 10 Vermont towns in the much loved Northeast Kingdom, including more than a dozen Vermont lakes and rivers. The pipe crosses the Black River, which empties into giant Lake Memphremagog.
An oil spill in the Northeast Kingdom would be catastrophic for the state. Imagine black, tar-like bitumen coating birds and fish in Vermont, the way oil spills damaged the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico in the BP disaster.
It would turn parts of the Green Mountain State into a Green Mountain wasteland.
There are many reasons this scenario is not just an idle fantasy.
The pipeline through Vermont is several decades old. It crosses some streams above ground. Compared to the crude oil now coursing through the line, tar sands oil is much tougher on pipes. Think of it as liquid sandpaper that can grind and burn its way through pipe.
That’s just what happened along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
There, a pipe carrying tar sands oil broke and emptied more than a million gallons of toxic oil, contaminating a 30-mile stretch of the river as well as a nearby lake. The cleanup is still going on two years later at an estimated cost of more than $825 million — making it the most costly inland cleanup of an oil spill.
And wouldn’t you know it: The company running that Michigan pipeline is Enbridge. That’s the same outfit involved in plans to run tar sands oil across Canada and through Vermont.
The Burlington City Council has already gone on record as opposing that idea. Similar resolutions, based on a model developed by 350VT.org, will be considered at many town meetings in early March. The resolutions will be put before those meetings either by voter petitions or by the selectboards themselves.
Now let’s take a quick look at the global picture.
The world’s scientists are virtually unanimous in agreeing that climate change is a clear and present danger to the future of humanity. Global temperatures are rapidly rising, and climates around the world are seeing huge, costly disruptions and unusually extreme weather.
We’ve seen the evidence in the Northeast from Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. The Midwest has recently undergone record heat and drought, while portions of Southeast Asia have seen massively destructive floods. The Arctic icecap experienced record melting last summer, portending a dangerous rise in sea levels among other risks.
NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, Ph.D., has said about the Alberta tar sands fields: “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it’s game over for the climate.”
Game over. This is a not a dress rehearsal. It’s the only planet we’ve got.
Canada is clearly proceeding, under the misguided leadership of its oil-friendly prime minister, Stephen Harper.
So it’s up to us.
Demonstrations against piping tar sands through New England are planned in Burlington on Jan. 23 and Portland on Jan. 26. There will also be a big 350.org event in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17, to urge President Obama to oppose the Keystone XL tar sand pipeline once and for all.
But you don’t have to travel to a demonstration to make your voice heard on this issue.
Check 350VT.org to register your support for the resolution to stop the pipeline through Vermont. Tell your friends about this issue before it’s too late. Let your selectboard members know you want the resolution to be considered at town meeting.
Making our voices heard through town meetings, on issues that directly affect us, is in the finest tradition of Vermont democracy. And little actions like these add up.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com; Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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