Tar Sands, Arrests and a Movement: Fossil Free Stanford on the Keystone XL Pipeline

March 4, 2014, 11:27 p.m.

On Sunday morning, 398 pairs of hands thrust through the White House fence and bound themselves with white plastic zip-ties to the iron bars in an act of peaceful defiance against the Keystone XL Pipeline. The protesters were all arrested in the largest act of youth-specific civil disobedience in decades.

On Monday morning, a group of 15 Stanford students took the 7:23 a.m. Caltrain into San Francisco for a student-led solidarity action, dubbed XL Dissent West Coast. Joining a crowd of more than 75 students from around the Bay Area and intentionally risking arrest, they rallied alongside dozens at the San Francisco State Department Building. They were demonstrating public solidarity with those 398 arrested Sunday protesting the pipeline in our nation’s capital. Nine were ultimately arrested.

The pipeline that students across the country were protesting would bring crude tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through the U.S. to Texas for export. The final decision on whether it will be built comes down to the President and is expected in late spring.

Here is what will happen if President Obama approves the Keystone XL Pipeline:

First, the sole freshwater source for two million Americans and 30 percent of the nation’s groundwater used for irrigation are at risk of contamination if there were to be a spill. TransCanada has stated that their Keystone pipelines are the safest on the continent, and yet their Keystone One pipeline suffered more spills in its first year (2010-2011) than any other first-year pipeline in U.S. history, with twelve spills.

Second, according to the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement, the tar sands oil will be some of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive oil ever produced on a large scale. Its extraction and refinement alone will result in 12 to 23 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. This is in addition to combustion of the tar sands oil, making the life cycle emissions of the pipeline roughly 5.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Third, it does stunningly little to increase our energy independence. The Keystone XL is an export pipeline. The tar sands oil will come out of the ground in Canada, flow in pipes across our country’s heartland (risking our land, air and water in the transportation process) and ultimately wind up loaded onto tankers for export to China, Latin America and Europe. In fact, the initial permit application filed by TransCanada explicitly states that this increased access to overseas markets will divert the oil Canada currently produces for America to send it overseas, increasing gas prices for those in the American Midwest and particularly for our farmers.

In a congressional hearing, TransCanada’s President claimed that the pipeline will create 20,000 American jobs. The State Department indicates that the number will be closer to 5,000. Moreover, it turns out only 35 of those jobs would last more than three years, and only 10 percent of any of the positions would be filled by local workers.

The Keystone drama is the same story we’ve seen replayed for decades on stages of all sizes. Time and time again, the fossil fuel industry has shamelessly demanded that our nation and our world backpedal on climate policy and emission regulations. What has galvanized the nation to act so purposefully upon this particular environmental threat is that approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline would make a blatantly backward and reactionary statement. While the world has repeatedly agreed that we desperately need to take serious steps toward a safer climate, we as a nation are not taking those steps.

Instead, we continue to build an energy infrastructure predicated upon continued use of not just fossil fuels, but extremely dirty forms of fossil fuels. It’s unceasingly frustrating that we as students, professors, universities, communities and even nations are still forced to engage in this contrived, tired argument. It makes us wistful for a future where we instead debate the pros and cons of rows of wind turbines meandering through our states. Keystone One has had far too many problems, and we are ready to be done with debates over fat, leaky pipes bursting with dirty crude oil.

The educated youth who grew up in the midst of climate controversies, climate calamities and now more than ever, climate solutions, are speaking up. The largest coordinated climate movement in history is thriving on campuses across the nation, and momentum, stymied for so long by the fossil fuel industry, is building. We are absolutely convinced that this is and must be the movement that will carry us to definitive climate action.

Frustrated by the extent of the fossil fuel industry’s disproportionate power and the resulting inaction of our policymakers, a new approach has arisen. Most of the students who traveled on Monday from Stanford to San Francisco for the XL Dissent West Coast rally are members of Fossil Free Stanford, the student group working to divest Stanford’s endowment from fossil fuels. If we cannot stop Keystone from being built directly, we can affect the demand for projects like Keystone. Stanford making the choice to reject fossil fuels would be a massive step in the right direction.

This approach has given the youth of the nation a climate goal they can reach — a means by which they can leverage the power of institutions to finally create the political, social and economic space for renewables to join them on the scene. Through coordinated, nationwide action we are building a country where we needn’t worry over tar sands pipelines. Instead, let’s focus our efforts upon creating an energy-independent America that protects the well-being of not only U.S. citizens but citizens of the world.


For more information on fossil fuel divestment, visit fossilfreestanford.org.

Michael Peñuelas ‘15 and Yari Greaney ‘15 are student organizers with Fossil Free Stanford. Contact them at [email protected] and [email protected].

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