Last Sunday, I had the privilege of marching from Red Square to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with more than 1000 students and young people from across the country. We marched to make it clear to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that the infamous Keystone XL pipeline project won’t be approved without a fight. Three of the bravest Hoya women I know, Caroline James, Chloe Lazarus, and Michelle Stearn, rose to the occasion, joining the nearly 400 protesters arrested for zip-tying themselves to the White House fence.
To the Georgetown students awoken by the energetic “Hey, Obama, we don’t want your pipeline drama!” chants at 10 a.m., I’m sorry your sleep was cut short. But I’m not sorry that this movement made itself heard at the site where, in a speech last July, President Obama promised to seriously consider the impact on carbon emissions the pipeline will have.
The pipeline, which would transport 830,000 tons of the dirtiest oil on Earth—tar sands oil—daily, would indeed have a significant negative effect on the climate. But almost six years since TransCanada, the company responsible for the project, filed its first presidential permit application and after nearly three years of public opposition, Obama has yet to make a decision.
An incredible amount of effort has been put into stopping this pipeline over the past few years by tens of thousands of activists. Why has so much energy been devoted towards stopping KXL, though, when there are so many other environmental crises worthy of our concern?
Tar sands oil is particularly terrible for the climate. The fuel produces 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil. It is not at all clear that Canada’s tar sands oil would be extracted regardless of whether or not this pipeline is built. This possibility depends upon oil prices staying high, for which there is no guarantee, and upon whether other means for transporting the oil are cheap enough to keep tar sands profitable. Prohibitive transportation costs also stifle Canada’s ability to sell this oil to other countries.
More importantly, though, we’re talking about the bigger picture. Because KXL would cross international lines, the pipeline involves the United States government as a key outside player. As American citizens, we are seizing this invaluable chance to leverage our country’s clout to make a lasting statement against this kind of dirty oil. Obama’s decision has the potential to set new norms for action on climate change.
It’s important to recognize, too, that opposition to the pipeline is not just about climate change. It’s a social justice issue. Fossil fuel extraction and refinement disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities across North America and tar sands are no exception. In northern Alberta, where most of this activity is based, disadvantaged First Nations communities are seeing their forests razed, rivers poisoned, and wildlife going extinct. Each barrel of oil from tar sands surface mining requires two to four barrels of freshwater and produces a startling one and a half barrels of toxic waste—even though this is held in massive “tailings ponds,” it is estimated that approximately four billion liters of this waste leaks into local rivers. Not only does this threaten the cultural and spiritual identities of these communities, but it puts already underprivileged groups at higher risk of negative health effects.
Any benefits to our economy that this pipeline would bring (and at 50 permanent jobs, these gains are slim at best) are surely outweighed by the egregious environmental and social effects of tar sands extraction. They’re also outweighed by the 518 barrels of oil per year that, according to the State Department, would inevitably spill along the length of the pipeline.
Sunday’s arrests represented an escalation for this movement, but they were far from unnecessary. The arrests were our way of transmitting the increasingly desperate plea of communities directly threatened by this project and others like it. As allies living far from the front lines of this struggle, we can at least speak truth to power here in Washington, D.C. As long as threats to human and planetary well-being continue to exist, we’ll keep on speaking—President Obama can count on that.