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Local View: We must stop putting profits ahead of the planet, our future

On Oct. 8, I arrived in Bagley, Minn., to support three Seattle-area environmentalists who put their futures at stake by trespassing on Enbridge property to protest and possibly damage pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada.

I also went to meet James Hansen, a former chief scientist at NASA with whom I had been sharing information on energy issues. Pressured by the administration of President George W. Bush to soft-pedal climate change, Hansen had resigned from NASA in 2013 and was arrested at a White House protest against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which transports tar sand crude oil to Texas.

When attorneys asked prospective jurors how they formed their opinions, most said they got their news from friends or from conservative talk radio. Many denied believing in climate change, and the few who did said it wasn't caused by humans. (Seventy percent of voters in Clearwater County, Minn., where Bagley is located, supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.)

As the 10th of about 40 potential jurors angrily asserted that climate change was a hoax, my mind slipped back to the 1980s and the Canadian moonscape that filled the windshield of my seaplane, the Tundra Cub. I was returning from a two-week tour of the Northwest Territories, heading south toward my Minnesota home. To the east was Lake Athabasca, the glittering tiara that joins northern Alberta to Saskatchewan. But to the south, 50,000 square miles of blackened, barren tar sands spread outward from the Athabasca River. Once covered by a lush, green carpet of spruce trees, brush, and muskeg, the sands contained some 3 trillion barrels of a heavy oil called bitumen. Strip-mined like coal and then heated, the sands were yielding more than 1 million barrels of oil per day.

Today, from MacKay to Fort McMurray, an irregular gridwork of immense pits and settling ponds march toward the horizon. In the pits, huge, 2,200-horsepower excavators carve out 50 cubic yards of tarry sand in single bites and dump them into $3.5 million trucks with 3,400-horsepower engines. Moving at 40 mph, each truck delivers 300 tons of bitumen to processing plants. There, the sand is mixed with hot water to create a slurry in which the oil floats to the top.

Just removing the oil from the sand takes five times more energy than pumping oil from a conventional well. So it adds even more carbon dioxide to our atmosphere.

Thirty-two companies mine the sands, including Syncrude, a consortium that began production in 1978 and later added several multibillion-dollar projects. The largest greenhouse gas emitter in Canada, Syncrude created 12 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2012 alone.

Worse yet, the noxious cloud created by tar sands mining has become one of the largest sources of air pollution in all of North America.

Iridescent streaks of oil on the Athabasca River warn of leaking tailing ponds, fish with tumors, and an increase in pollution-related diseases, including cancers, for the residents of Fort Chipewyan, 100 miles downstream.

On the second day in court in Bagley, defense attorney Lauren Regan began by arguing that the "valve turners" phoned Enbridge 10 minutes before they planned to shut off the oil pipeline's valves and repeated the warning nine minutes later. At that time, Enbridge, not the defendants, shut down the lines. Regan moved for acquittal, basing her request on the precedent that it is sometimes necessary to do a small harm in an attempt to prevent a larger one. Also, video evidence showed the defendants didn't touch the valves. Fortunately, Judge Robert Tiffany agreed, and Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, and Benjamin Joldersma were acquitted.

The onrush of damaging climate change demands that we stop burning carbon in every possible way. We must electrify our transportation systems. And we must produce electricity with carbon dioxide-free, 92 percent-efficient, 24/7, environment-friendly nuclear power, by far the safest way to produce electricity — not by building 33 percent-efficient, environment-damaging wind and solar farms that rely on carbon burners to create the power they don't provide.

The tar sands industry, which planned to triple production by 2030, has been canceling contracts, thanks in part to real environmentalists like Johnston, Klapstein, Joldersma, and James Hansen.

We have been placing profits above the planet for 200 years. That must change.

George Erickson of Eveleth is a member of the National Center for Science Education and the Thorium Energy Alliance. For a free copy of his latest book, "Unintended Consequences: The Lie That Killed Millions and Accelerated Climate Change," email or download it at