Letters from across the Keystone XL pipeline

    Climate activists carried a mock Keystone XL pipeline as they encircled the White House on November 6, 2011. Photo by Clayton Conn via Flickr.

    Social movements succeed when ordinary people step outside their comfort zones and embrace their personal bravery. In the interest of preserving our global climate and a habitable future, we are doing just that. After almost four years together, we are spending the summer 1,700 miles apart. But through our separation we’ve been connected by one thing: the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

    One of us, Kristin, is a writer reporting from Alberta, Canada — the mouth of the pipeline, where tar sands oil is extracted — while the other, Ethan, is an activist with Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, where the proposed pipeline would cut through on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

    Here are two letters we’ve written to each other reflecting on experiences working with First Nations peoples in Alberta whose lands and lives are being devastated by tar sands extraction, meeting Texas landowners who will have their property taken from them by eminent domain and the climate movement we hope will bring about the justice that’s sorely lacking.

    Dear Ethan,

    I’m hurtling up Highway 63 towards tar sands ground zero, a couple days ahead of this Saturday’s Healing Walk. About 1,700 kilometers south, you’re at the other end of the proposed path of the Keystone XL. When I read last week that Obama had approved the final permits for construction of the southern leg of the pipeline, my heart sank. Last summer in D.C., when all 1,252 of us were arrested in front of the White House and after the huge momentum that followed, I thought for a minute that it wouldn’t come to this. But it has.

    After two months up here, I have a pretty good sense of the players in this game. I hesitate to say “game,” but let’s face it: there are very clear winners and very clear losers. The winners, obviously, are the multinationals who rake in the big bucks; the biggest, actually, since oil is the most profitable industry… ever. And the losers are the First Nations and other people on whose land is being built a mining operation on such scale it would make you gape in wonder.

    But there’s this whole gray area in the middle too — people who are winners in some ways and losers, perhaps, in the long term. I’ve met good, generous, smart people who work for Big Oil. They’re certainly not evil. Many of them say that they’re more effective change makers on the inside than on the outside. And then there are the men who work in the oil patch, living in dismal work camps but making more money than you or I have ever seen. And some are sending their kids to college with that money. But they’re also living apart from their families, isolated in a bleak landscape that drives many of them to get wasted every night just so that they can forget, for a couple of hours, where they are. I talked to one guy, a musician, who left because he just couldn’t take that bleakness anymore. Are these winners or losers? You tell me.

    But it’s not all bad up here, eh? Edmonton’s got the biggest mall in North America. I went yesterday. There’s a big statue of Alberta’s first oil men, right there between the Apple store and the Gap. An homage to the source of Alberta’s wealth in the place where people go to spend it. There’s a nice symmetry.

    Meanwhile, just a few hundred kilometers away, members of Cold Lake First Nation sent out an urgent request for solidarity in their effort to resist a deal that has reportedly been struck with an oil company, giving the final go-ahead for tar sands mining on their land. A small group of resisters has been camping outside their leaders’ office for over a week now. I hope to meet some of them in person soon — they know that no amount of money is going to compensate for the damage that will be done to their traditional land. Like many others here, they’re rejecting every piece of that whole winner/loser dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    Sending love from one end of the pipeline to the other,


    Dear Kristin,

    As you know I’ve been down here in Texas with the Tar Sands Blockade crew for several weeks now and we’ve been working non-stop to prepare for TransCanada’s impending construction. So this morning to help clear my head I hopped on a borrowed bike and rode out of town before the temperature climbs to a sweltering 108 degrees. I cycled through an unending maze of big hemi trucks parked in the driveways of suburban dead end cul-de-sacs with tragically ironic names like“Broken Bow Lane.”

    Between the neighborhoods I saw a fracking rig happily humming away in chemical bliss in an arid field littered with large styrofoam Chick-fil-A cups and Bud Light bottles. The huge lots on either side had solitary billboards proudly announcing the future arrival of two new Mega-Churches. It reminded me of your description of the Alberta oilman statue sandwiched between the corporate shopping centers. Do you think when the congregations arrive they’ll seek to spiritually heal the fracked land much like the Native Healing Walk you did this last weekend? We’ll have to see.

    I wish I could have been there for the Healing Walk as we originally planned, but glad that one of us got to walk in solidarity with the First Nations elders. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about solidarity and what it really means. Tweeting about it just isn’t enough. Especially when others have sacrificed everything to nonviolently stand up for what is right. I hope the brave folks in West Virginia know how deeply I feel for them. Have you seen the video of the violent miners? It’s wild how hostile they are, but I don’t have to tell you that. I keep re-watching the video of Dustin before they were arrested and brutally beaten by police. Their message of understanding and collective liberation in the face of imminent violence speaks to the heart of the dichotomy of winners and losers.

    You know, I came down here because I’m a climate activist and understand that with climate change we all lose in the long run. But after chatting with local landowners in homestead porch rocking chairs, my reason for being here has evolved. They tell me stories about how the slick talking men in suits came, lied to them and swindled them into signing over parts of their land to the pipeline. Hearing first-hand how this is destroying the lives of self-described “simple folk” because they stand in the pathway of insatiable corporate greed really lights me up. This fire reached full roar when I stood on the exact spot where the pipe would slice across their land and level all the trees in its path. It’s just plain wrong. I’m proud to be here helping defend their homes from this injustice.

    Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about those in the“gray area”you mention, like the workers TransCanada has subcontracted out and shipped in from out-of-state. They’re just here to do their job; lay the pipe, collect a paycheck and get home to their families as soon as they can. I wish I could share a beer with them after we’ve both worked a long day and explain that my quarrel is not with them, but this crazy system we all seem to be caught up in. And I hope they get paid by the hour because we plan on holding up construction for quite awhile.

    I’m not going to lie, it’s hard being separated like this. We’re both pushing ourselves to our limits up against the largest industrial goliath in human history. I want to say that we’re going to win, that we’ll be reunited soon, but I just don’t know. What keeps me going is the dedicated all-volunteer team down here in Texas and knowing that you’re on the other end giving it everything you’ve got. Like they say, through the struggle we realize our humanity, eh?

    Sending love from the other end of this damned pipeline,

    PS. I’ve concluded that Alberta is the Texas of Canada. They both wear big cowboy hats, have funny accents and a knack for ripping up the earth for fuel. Think about it.

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