The activists, clad mostly in black, flowed slowly and silently down Battery Street in Burlington. They carried signs proclaiming their opposition to tar sands and big oil, and when they reached the front of the Hilton hotel, they all laid down on the street, an amorphous configuration of hundreds of bodies. There were a few moments of silence. Then, faintly, a single female voice began singing the opening strains of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." The chorus swelled as police officers and hotel guests looked on.
This "human oil spill" took place at the end of July, scheduled to coincide with the 36th annual conference of New England governors and eastern Canadian premiers. Its goal was to call attention to a looming threat to the region: tar sands oil.
Tar sands are a mix of sand, water, and a heavy, viscous hydrocarbon called bitumen that can be converted to oil after hardcore processing and refining. In its raw form, it feels like a gummy bit of asphalt. There are shallow deposits that can be mined with giant excavators and trucks, and deeper deposits found hundreds of feet underground that are extracted by shooting hot steam and chemicals into the earth, melting the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface. Mixed with various other toxins, it can be diluted for pipeline transport (this product, diluted bitumen, is sometimes referred to as "dilbit"). Tar sands oil is very different from light crude oil that flows easily and is most commonly converted into gasoline and kerosene.
Dilbit is even more of an environmental hazard than conventional crude oil: Extracting it produces more greenhouse gases; and due to its composition, it causes more of an impact when it spills.
According to a report issued by the Canadian Energy Resources Conservation Board, there are about 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil in Canada's tar sands (the largest swath of which is in the western province of Alberta), second only to Saudi Arabia's crude reserves.
This is the stuff that caused such a ruckus last year, when the Canadian oil and gas transmission company TransCanada proposed constructing the Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil and dilbit from western Canada through the United States to Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast. Thanks in part to activists like the ones who rallied in Vermont last month, the project was blocked by President Barack Obama last November, though it may come up for review again in 2013.
Another proposal, the Northern Gateway project, would transport dilbit from Alberta to the coast in British Columbia; that is also meeting stiff opposition from environmentalists and Aboriginal peoples.
And so, with obstacles to the south and the west, it only makes sense that Canadian energy giants are looking for another outlet for their black gold. It's possible that alternative route could come through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. And that's a terrifying idea.
"It's not scare-mongering," says Glen Brand, executive director of the Sierra Club's Maine chapter. "Tar sands are poisonous and toxic and the prospect of a spill in places like the Androscoggin River, Sebago Lake, or Casco Bay is frightening."
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PIECES