The price of extreme energy: How shall we respond?

 Fearless Summer
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  July 19, 2013


To feed civilization’s insatiable need for energy, oil and natural gas are being extracted from the earth and transported around it in new ways and in a new frenzy.

Environmentalists are beginning to call this phenomenon “extreme energy.” They see an extreme price being paid in vast pollution, including the dramatic warming of the planet.

So they ask: How shall we respond to extreme energy? How shall we, you, and I take responsibility for what is happening? At its root, the word responsibility means “to respond.” That means action.

And environmentalists believe there’s a lot to act on. Maine people recently got a close-up, nightmarish view of one price of extreme energy. In the early morning of June 6, explosions and a firestorm killed 50 people and destroyed much of the picturesque downtown of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a quiet community only 20 miles from the Maine border.

The cause was the derailment of a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train composed of tank cars of crude oil about to cross Maine from west to east to the Irving Oil refinery in St. John, New Brunswick. (See “Death and Life in Lac-Mégantic.”)

The oil it carried had been “fracked” from North Dakota shale deposits. This process uses high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals to fracture rock deep below ground to release its oil. Fracking depletes and pollutes ground water and contaminates the air, including making a sizable contribution to global warming.

In a recent development, millions of gallons a year of this oil are being hauled on two railroads in Maine. Lac-Mégantic is the last Quebec town on the west-east Montreal, Maine & Atlantic line before it enters Maine. The south-central line, operated by Pan Am Railways, takes the oil to the Irving refinery through our most populated area.

There is speculation that, in reaction to the shutdown of the west-east track because of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Irving may try to boost shipments on the Pan Am tracks. Meanwhile, Pan Am has come under state scrutiny because for several months it hasn’t reported how much oil it is hauling. (See sidebar, “Pan Am Railways Also in the Spotlight.”)

Oil trains are not the only extreme-energy threat to Maine. The Portland Pipeline Corporation is considering reversing the flow of the Portland-to-Montreal pipeline to allow oil originating in Alberta’s tar sands to supply ships in Portland Harbor. (See “Pre-emptive Petitioning,” by Deirdre Fulton, June 14.)

Environmentalists consider tar-sands oil — toxic crude with lots bitumen, a/k/a asphalt — to be a menace both in its extraction — from ore dug in open-pit mines — and in its transport. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline to take the oil from Canada deep into the US is a major environmental controversy.

To block the flow of extreme energy, activists this summer — internationally — are turning to nonviolent civil disobedience and other forms of direct action in a campaign called Fearless Summer.

On June 27, members of the climate-change-activist group 350 Maine and the venerable environmental radicals of Earth First! kicked off the state’s Fearless Summer by briefly blocking a Pan Am oil train in Fairfield. (See sidebar, “The First Fearless Summer Skirmish.”)

Maine activists are also responding to extreme energy with educational activities and environmentalist community-building (see box, “Activism Without Getting Arrested”).

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