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Why I Came to Washington to
Protest the Keystone Pipeline

By Rick Bass

15 Feb 2013

It’s not exactly as if hell has frozen over, for me, an oil and gas geologist to be protesting — maybe even beyond the extent allowable by law – the folly of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. I’ve hugged a tree or two before, written some letters opposing this or that dam, mine, clear-cut, or whatnot. I’ve lived the last 26 years in the backwoods of northwest Montana, writing pretty little stories, poems and essays about the million-acre garden of the Yaak Valley, a lush wild rainforest of a place, in which I’ve pleaded, argued, scolded for its protection.

Rick Bass
Rick Bass
But before that time, as a geologist, I lived underground, if only in my mind, studying geological maps, borehole recordings, and descriptions of old drill cuttings, trying to determine where the great thing, the treasure — the oil or gas — might be hiding.

In those years, I spent many, even most, of my waking hours dreaming, and in that manner inhabiting, a world beneath this one, where the terraces and ledges of an unseen landscape, buried just beneath a few thousand feet of stone, were at least as real to me as the world of concrete and traffic above. My mind blazed with desire for these lower lands, and with a hunter’s yearning to reach them. You could call it a need.

In that dreamy world, I walked along underground beaches,
We are being sold the lie that Alberta tar sands oil is conflict-free oil.
head down, studying the sand grains and listening to the waves, which sorted the different sizes of sand and whispered — or shouted — of their ability to one day hold oil. Old swamps, and sheer cliffs, ridges, and ravines: I covered thousands of miles, and always, far below — hunting oil, trailing natural gas, with the intensity of the wolf that happens across the first speck of blood in the snow, the wolf that is drawn to that speck.

And when I was not earth-diving, I was pushing laterally through the night, driving the back roads of the South to analyze one or more of the wells I’d first dreamed into being, attending to that event as if to the birthing of an animal. The wells seemed always to be finished at night. The twin lights of my big American-made V-8 car powering through the twists and turns, up into the hills of north Alabama, or down into the swamps and bayous of south Louisiana, or the soybean fields of Mississippi — arriving then, to discover whether we had found the treasure, or not.

Dreaming, and moving: Those were my days. Running pipe, we called it, when we found oil or gas. We found so very much gas. We’d tie those reservoirs into the spiderweb veins of gas lines that fed the populated Northeast, until natural gas prices went into their 30-year free fall so we couldn’t even sell it. People had set up to use oil, or coal. Somebody, somewhere, wanted things to go that way.

Our country still sits on that natural gas, a glut of it, and, with new drilling technology, it’s far cheaper — half the price, even unadjusted for inflation — than it was back when I was finding it. Imagine, please, buying eggs today for 50 cents a dozen, or a gallon of gas for 75 cents. You’d take that deal in a second.

Instead, we are being led as if with a ring through our nose, being sold the lie
How can we not protest Keystone’s attempts to bring the tar sands’ artery through America’s heart?
that Alberta tar sands oil is conflict-free oil, gotten by scraping away the boreal forest of Canada — the great lungs of North America, one of our last hopes for temperance against rising CO2 levels — and are steam-cleaning, with huge amounts of fossil fuel, thick tar from the sandstones buried beneath that forest. An open pit 50 sprawling years in the digging, before it’s done, and the Athabasca River running sheeny with fracture fluids and other toxins, to feed the world market. They boil the tarry sand — as if making the last of stone soup — but what malicious residue remains, from getting to that last cup?

It’s a filthy way to get oil, and in the oilfield, I’ve seen some filth: broken pipes, broken promises, false assurances. I’m not talking about geologists or engineers, I’m talking about — I don’t even know what to call it anymore. In the media it’s referred to as Big Oil, but we all know it’s gotten even bigger than that.

The proposed Keystone pipeline is wrong from every direction. There’s not even one direction of right that we can cling to on this.

How can we not protest, with every last ounce of effort, Keystone’s attempts to bring the tar sands’ immoral and poisonous artery right through the heart of America?

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week to stand with 350.org and Bill McKibben in telling President Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline. I’m here because I’m an oil and gas geologist and know too much — I know how it works. But I’m here also because I hate the idea of living with regret: of wondering, later in life, if things could have turned out a different way, if only we’d gotten involved and spoken up. It’s a bad feeling, to wish you’d said something, something important, but then not to say it – and miss your chance, forever.

I’d even lie down in front of the proposed pipeline and get arrested, if I had to. Not just because I know, with too much specificity, what’s going on up in Alberta, but because I believe protest can work. I believe we can win. There are still solutions. I believe that if regular people such as myself begin rising up and, if necessary, lying down and sitting in — rotating our bodies, at first randomly but then in concerted fashion, into places that disrupt the momentum of this dark artery, this dark dream of the pipeline, piping us tar — then the dream of democracy can and will assert itself and intervene, as it has in the past, to address wrongs.

We can talk about the morality of poisoning the air and water of the Athabasca people up in Alberta or the impact that the
I’m in Washington because I have consumed legion amounts of fossil fuels and want better choices.
proposed Utah tar sands extraction will have in our own country. A single spill from this pipeline could affect the drinking water of two million Americans.

We can talk about the economic and social misery caused by already-rising sea levels that will displace millions in the coming decades. We can talk about the loss of my little paradise in Montana, the million acres where I and about a hundred other people are blessed to live, in the cool damp forest up on the Canadian border: a little Eden, for a little while longer (though even here, flames curl at the dying edges of the valley each summer).

I’m here in Washington then as a former oil and gas geologist. I found millions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil and brought it up from below and into the bright world. I’m here in Washington because I have consumed legion of amounts of fossil fuels almost every day of my life, and I want better choices. I’m in Washington because my state of Montana is carving up 1.5 billion tons of dirty coal in Otter Creek to give to China, to get China and other developing countries hooked on cheap coal, coal too dirty to burn in this country.

I’m in Washington because if even my far northern mountain valley is on fire, what chance does the rest of the world have?

I never thought danger could find me in my valley. I feel like I’ve left the valley to engage the enemy. I feel like I’m being forced to fight to defend a thing a love — the world. Not just my little home, my little garden, but the whole sweet world.

Rick Bass is the author of numerous books, including Why I Came West, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. He has lived in Montana’s Yaak Valley since 1987.

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